A key part of Barack Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly was the crisis in Ukraine, specifically what he called Russian aggression. “Russian aggression in Europe,” the US President stated, “recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition.” What followed was pretty much White House boilerplate. But then Obama said:
Moreover, a different path is available – the path of diplomacy and peace and the ideals this institution is designed to uphold. The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges. That’s what the United States and Russia have been able to do in past years – from reducing our nuclear stockpiles to meet our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to cooperating to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons. And that’s the kind of cooperation we are prepared to pursue again—if Russia changes course.
This is the first time Obama has put forth conditions for the possible removal of sanctions against Russia. It was somewhat vague: Russia would have to take the path of “diplomacy and peace.” Interestingly, the return of Crimea seems to be off the table as a precondition. And by invoking the cease-fire agreement Obama seems was fine with Luhansk and Donetsk turning into a frozen conflict and dominated by Russia. Essentially, Obama’s support for Ukraine is rather light—the US will support the embattled country “as they develop their democracy and economy,” but nothing more. Obama is playing cautious with Russia, as he did by refusing to give Poroshenko arms. Overall, he favors good relations with Russia and “addressing common challenges” over a long drawn out conflict in Ukraine, even if that means Ukraine has to give up a lot as a result. I wouldn’t call it a return to the “Reset,” but clearly Obama is looking for some détente with Russia.