In ‘60 Minutes’ Interview, Obama Muddles Facts on Ukraine

By Patrick Goodenough | October 12, 2015 | 4:21am EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets in 2013 with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich – the man who President Obama in his CBS interview described as ‘a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin.’ (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

( – Defending himself against accusations that Russian President Vladimir Putin is challenging American leadership, President Obama erroneously told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that when he took office Ukraine was ruled by a Putin “stooge.”

Questioning the premise that Putin’s foreign policy was succeeding, Obama cited the situations in Ukraine and Syria.

“When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin,” he told interviewer Steve Kroft. “Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region.”

Today, Putin is no longer able to count on those allies’ support, Obama continued, adding that the Russian leader instead was having to deploy his military “just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally” – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The implication was that having lost one ally and at risk of losing another, Putin’s international position had in fact been weakened during the Obama administration, rather than the opposite as many Obama critics contend.

The president was incorrect, however, in his citing of the situation in Ukraine when he entered the White House.

The Putin-backed “stooge” he referred to, Viktor Yanukovich, only became president in Kiev in February 2010, more than a year after Obama’s own inauguration.

When Obama became president, his counterpart in Ukraine was not Yanukovich but Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western leader who, during his five years at the helm, had angered the Kremlin by seeking European Union and NATO membership.

(The Russian-backed Yanukovich had sought the presidency in 2004, but amid accusations of vote-rigging that bid was foiled by the “Orange Revolution,” which brought Yushchenko to power instead.)

Yushchenko’s policies were a major challenge to Moscow, which fretted about losing influence over a strategically-located country which, after Russia itself, was the biggest of the Soviet Union successor states.

Ukraine’s Crimea region was home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based at the Soviet-era Sevastopol naval base under a long-term lease. Yushchenko’s call for Russian ships and personnel to leave when the lease expired in 2017 was another serious concern for the Kremlin.

Looking to Washington for support, Yushchenko found it from the Bush administration. President Bush visited Kiev in 2008, en route to a NATO summit where the U.S. backed membership plans for both Ukraine and Georgia. (In the end the issue was shelved, because some European NATO members were loath to antagonize Russia.)

The last year of Yushchenko’s presidency overlapped with the first year of Obama’s. During that period – from Jan. 2009 to February 2010 – Obama traveled to Europe six times, but did not visit Ukraine.

At the time, the new administration in Washington was pursuing a “reset” in relations with Moscow, prompting prominent figures in eastern and central Europe to express concern that Obama’s attempts to improved ties could result in the U.S. making “the wrong concessions to Russia.”

Vice President Joe Biden did visit Ukraine and Georgia in July 2009, and reiterated U.S. support for their NATO aspirations.

Campaigning for Ukraine’s presidential election in early 2010, Putin ally Yanukovich pledged to return Kiev to Moscow’s fold. After he won – an outcome viewed as a significant victory for Putin – he shelved Ukraine’s NATO application process and extended the Crimea lease for the Black Sea Fleet for at least another 25 years.

Yanukovich remained in power until February 2014, when he fled Kiev amid huge anti-government protests and sought shelter in Russia.  Moscow backed an armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, and after a referendum not recognized by the West, annexed Crimea.

Russia’s intervention prompted U.S. and E.U. sanctions. But the situation in Ukraine is unresolved and, despite the West’s refusal to recognize it, Crimea remains part of the Russian Federation.

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