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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Obama Mentions Ukraine But Emphasizes Russia

No, he didn't call Ukraine the Ukraine, as he had done during the presidential debates. But he did say Kiev (7:53). So much for Ambassador Taylor's efforts to switch the U.S. government from Kiev to Kyiv (3:59-4:27).

Nitpicking aside, here's what President Obama said in Moscow today, in addition to commending Putin on doing
“extraordinary work:

State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That's why we must apply this principle to all nations -- and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; they must be able to contribute to the Alliance's mission. And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.


And here's what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on March 5, 2009: “We should continue to open NATO's door to European countries such as Georgia and Ukraine and help them meet NATO standards.”

Sound interesting? Wait until you read what presidential candidate Obama wrote in a letter to the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America in October 2008.

He described Ukraine as being ready for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) and said he would work with U.S. allies to convince them to grant MAP to Ukraine.

Now isn't that change we can believe in?



John Kalitka said...

Don't feel too bad, Taras. I'm not sure President Obama has the best interests of the United States in mind, either.

Marta Salazar said...

hello dear Taras!

Fortunately Obama is the president and not Clinton;

Today, Obama decides and not Clinton ;)

Taras said...


It's hard to argue with you. Judging by his rhetoric, President Obama exhibits a serious miscalculation of U.S. interests and Russian intentions.

I hear what you're saying, Marta!

After defeating Clinton in the election and appointing her Secretary of State, Obama is now pulling the rug from under her policies — and his own promises.

Thank you for commenting, Reaganite Republican!

In just one paragraph, Obama lectures Russia on the sovereignty of its neighbors and then raises the specter of appeasement.

As history shows, appeasement leads to adventurism, with disastrous global consequences.

Anonymous said...

Taras, I grew up learning and believing that 'the Ukraine' was a way of elevating the word 'Ukraine' to a higher status. The United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the Ukraine, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Earldom of Mar, the President of the USA, The Queen of England, the King of France - through the centuries - etc. I had no idea or conception that 'the Ukraine' had the effect of relegating Ukraine to territorial status. I've only become aware of this in the last 3-4 years. I can't help believing that President Obama is in the same boat with me, and that's why he slips up once in a while. When your brain is hard-wired that way, it's difficult to cut the connections (after more than 50 years in my case). Comments?

Taras said...

Thank you for commenting! You certainly do have a point there!

Old habits die hard. As we get older, they get harder. I realize that millions of ordinary English speakers have no idea about the finer points of Ukraine v. the Ukraine usage. So when they say the Ukraine, they bear no ill will to Ukraine. But as a Ukrainian, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the definite article emotionally, and a more relaxed yet suspicious reaction intellectually.

In the presidential debates, I took offense at Obama's “the Ukraine” usage because I tend to hold policymakers, both in Ukraine and abroad, to a high standard. Given Obama’s then-chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, I couldn’t interpret his usage based on the theory of habits alone.

After the election, I promoted President Obama to even a higher standard.

So when he applied the indefinite article in this nonstandard way, saying “countries like a Poland or a Czech Republic,” I started thinking about the deeper meaning.

Had a layperson said something like that, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. But when a U.S. president talks, the style is the substance, right?

Anonymous said...


"But when a U.S. president talks, the style is the substance, right?'

Well yes, this is somewhat true (although what he actually says is the substance that he has to stand by and answer to), however even if President Obama said '...a Canada,' this would not be offensive to me as a Canadian. It would cause me to pay slightly more attention to his point because he had emphasized Canada by using the indefinite article. It would be a way of reflecting, or perhaps magnifying, Canada within the sentence. This usage is common no matter the standard. I'm sure PM Harper has used it vis-a-via any number of issues. There is no intent to offend, whatever the linguistic history. BTW, I now use 'Ukraine,' not 'the Ukraine,' but I still feel (in my psyche) as if I'm demoting Ukraine to a lower standard. And when I say Kyiv instead of Kiev, nobody knows what I'm talking about. There's no way of talking, short of precise diplomatic language agreed to by all parties, that won't offend somebody. I guess we all have to die off first? :-) by which time of course another way to offend will have evolved.
BTW, on American TV last evening, there was some discussion as to whether Ukraine was offended because President Obama didn't visit recently (after Moscow, but before Italy today). His defenders said that travelling to Ukraine after Russia might have offended Ukraine, and that a separate European trip would be the way to go.

Lingüista said...

Taras, Obama has to deal with multiple problem; his presidency has been claimed to face challenges unheard of since Roosevelt's days.

In other words: Ukraine, perhaps even Eastern Europe, are not his priorities. They can't be; they aren't what he was elected to solve. To quote from Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, "Fix The Economy Already!"

I don't know that his attitude is "appeasement" in the sense of "let's prevent a war by making concessions"; to me it looks more like a "what will Americans hold me guilty for if I don't do while in office?". Sadly, Ukraine and the whole Eastern Europe aren't very high on that list. The Poles and the Czechs will also feel a little let down by the current ambiguous rhetorics on those missiles they wanted to see in their territories; this is probably not going to improve.

My guess is Ukraine (and Georgia) probably won't enter NATO during Obama's presidency. They may get a MAP, but even that is very iffy: I wouldn't bet any significant amount of money on that. Especially given that (in Ukraine) the majority of the population seems not to like the idea -- only 28% approve of entering NATO. That tends to affect political will from other NATO members. I wished I could say it won't be so, but to me it seems unlikely.

I wished I could say something more positive about Ukraine and NATO, Taras. In fact, I wished I could do something to improve the odds for Ukraine. I don't see what, though, other than hoping.

Taras said...

Well, as we grow older, our resistance to change gives way to younger generations’ acceptance of change. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition.

A few years ago, India de-Anglicized the names of two major cities: Bombay became Mumbai and Calcutta became Kolkata. Unlike in the case of Kiev-Kyiv, the Western media has picked up the new names, and so have I. Perhaps it takes a little more effort on Kyiv’s part to gain worldwide acceptance.

Now, I’m not a native speaker of English, but I’ve read books by U.S. ambassadors, presidents and intelligence officers. Never have I encountered “country like a Canada,” “country like an Israel,” “country like a France,” or “country like a Germany.”

In Obama’s context, I think the indefinite article indicated his ingrained perception of these countries’ size and influence, or, to be precise, lack thereof.

After all, a Ukraine with nukes and a GDP of a few trillion dollars would be a much more attractive place for a U.S. president to visit:)

Taras said...


I agree with your assessment of Obama’s priorities. What I don’t agree with is Obama’s assessment of risks related to his policy of appeasing Russia.

His administration apparently thinks that appeasing Russia is all about “и волки сыты, и овцы целы” (“the wolves [Russia] are well fed, the sheep [Ukraine] are safe”), as the Russian proverb goes. However, to the Kremlin, this policy will translate into something totally different: “и волки целы, и овцы сыты” (“the wolves [Russia] are safe, the sheep [U.S.] are well fed”). Who knows what happens next?

So if Obama screws things up, the millions of Ukrainians who view America sympathetically will no longer be that sympathetic, to put it mildly.

Bravecat said...

Duhhh I don't blame him. I can't say "Kyiv" myself. It's Kiev to me foreva :^)

Taras said...

My quarrel was with the U.S. government, not with you, Cat!:)

You know I have a special offer for you: You can say “Key-yeahve” instead of “Key-eve” all you want. Just don’t be afraid to come back to your home town once in a while!:)

Lingüista said...

Taras, you may be right. I suppose many people's guesses (mine included) is that Obama is weighing the risks, and perhaps concluding that he has to please the American voters rather than the Ukrainians who view America sympathetically. In the long run, that may be worse -- America can certainly use a little shine as an inspiration for freedom and democracy throughout the world. But then again, my guess is Obama is thinking about what Americans will say in 2012 -- 'four more years' or 'get out you liar'?

I probably wouldn't like to be in his shoes. I wouldn't know what to do to get the best possible results. (Someone said politics is "the art of the possible"; that rings true to me.)

But who knows? Obama has been praised as someone who plays for the long run, not for immediate tactic advantages. Maybe he'll surprise us.

In fact, what would you do in Obama's shoes? What would you say to Ukraine, and what would you say to Russia? And what do you think the consequences would be?

Taras said...

Well, I did not vote for Obama and I'm not even an American. But as a Ukrainian, I already smell a few broken promises on his part.

If I were in his shoes, I'd probably try to keep my campaign promises. So if Obama reverses the trend and honors his promises regarding Ukraine, I'll change my opinion.

elmer said...

With regard to Obama's visit to Maskva, Ukraine's President Yushchenko and Ukraine's ambassador to Russia Hryshchenko said this:

This apprehension was evident in a comment by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko who stated on July 7: "Ukraine hopes that it will not become the third side, through which other countries will make compromises to reach their interests" (UNIAN Press Agency, July 8).

The Ukrainian ambassador to Russia, Konstantyn Hryshchenko, told the UNIAN press agency: "The principled position of our that matters pertaining to Ukraine will be decided in Ukraine by Ukrainian political leaders who have a mandate from the people." He added, "There is concern that discussions do not take place over matters which could constitute a danger to our interests."

Indeed, virtually the entire modern history of Ukraine has been about non-Ukrainians deciding the fate of Ukraine, from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to assorted carving up of Ukraine by meetings in Paris and elsewhere.


Anyone who knows Ukraine and Ukrainians can tell you the answer - because there have always been Ukrainians who have been willing to sell out their own country.

And because the first thing that Ukrainians has always done is to - fight among themselves.

Planning? Goal-setting? Implementation? Forget about it.

Arguing is the primary thing.

And so you see the endless political crisis, including assorted tricks like blocking of the rostrum and figuring out nifty ways to disband the Rada or amend the Constitution to eliminate presidential elections.

Ukraine going to the dogs in the meantime?

That's not important in Ukraine - fighting is the important thing, and grabbing all you can out of the government for your own personal benefit.

So what difference does it make, indeed, if Obama says a few nice words about Ukraine?

The "political elite" in Ukraine doesn't care about that - except for a few nice words in response.

But actions speak louder than words.

So Yatseniuk, for some reason, hires Russian "political technologists" for his presidential campaign.

Yushchenko's brother gets $53 million from RosUkrEnergo, and Yushchenko supports Firtash and RUE as a corrupt middleman in gas deals with Russia's Gazprom.

If you are a "political elite" in Ukraine, if you commit a crime and they remove your parliamentary immunity, you run to Maskva to hide.

If you don't have parliamentary immunity, you run to Maskva to hide.

Improve the pipeline system?

Or the antiquated and inefficient central hot water system, whereby hot water piped to residences from central plants is cut off almost all the time?

Not important.

Improving really bad roads and reducing major speeding and horrible traffic accidents?

Not important.

Fighting's the thing.

And looking to Obama to solve all of Ukraine's problems.

John Kalitka said...

It might be helpful to consider the fact that President Obama probably sees foreign affairs as nothing more than a "distraction" to his domestic agenda for expanding the size and scope of government organizations and institutions here in the United States.

As a U.S. senator for some two years, he never showed much interest in the topic. And, so far, the President's foreign policy seems to be little more than laying down covering fire with apologies and appeasement.

This strategy is probably just intended to buy him enough time to direct and promote "cap and trade" energy taxes, nationalized health care, and political patronage to organized labor unions, etc. The President's poor showing vis-a-vis the Iranian election protests, and his ham-fisted handling of the Manuel Zelaya affair in Honduras, among other matters, suggests he is comfortable with a world affairs status quo.

I'm sure Putin and Medvedev are well aware of this now....

Taras said...


Actions speak louder than words, or, as Obama put it in The Audacity of Hope, “talk is cheap.”

Still words do matter — if they communicate full and undivided support. For President Obama to communicate such support, he could have said something like, “That's why we must apply this principle to all nations — and that includes Georgia and Ukraine.” [end of paragraph]

Of course, Obama will not solve Ukraine’s problems. It’s not his job. It’s our job. But he can and should see the big picture. He can and should act in ways that prevent — not produce — problems for other countries and, ultimately, for America and the entire world.


I too am deeply concerned about President Obama’s recent steps in the international arena. For one thing, the Russian establishment already touts his visit as a major breakthrough in isolating Ukraine from the NATO track and from the West.

Who knows what steps the Kremlin may take to solidify its breakthroughs.