During his trip to Oakdale, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, President Obama sat down for an interview with CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett. While the President used the interview to reinforce the clinical talk of "consequences" for Russia if the situation in Ukraine escalates, a little bit of smack-talk jumped out. Garrett began by asking the President if Vladimir Putin is trying to provoke a civil war, and if the West will let him get away with it.
The President noted that, along with their illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia has "supported, at a minimum, non-state militias in southern and eastern Ukraine."
The second part of the question unanswered, Garrett asked about the meeting in Geneva today, between Secretary of State John Kerry and officials from Ukraine, the EU, and Russia. "Expectations could hardly be lower for the outcome," Garrett said. "Are you prepared to say, Mr. President, right here and now, that if that meeting fails, the United States and European nations will impose new and much more harsh sanctions on the Russian economy?"
"What I've said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps, which are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences. What you have already seen is the Russian economy weaker, capital fleeing out of Russia," the President said, adding "Mr. Putin's decisions are not just bad for Ukraine, over the long term, they're going to be bad for Russia."
So far, this was all a clean reiteration of the statements that have been coming out of the White House, and from the podium of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. The interview with CBS was designed to project those well-honed messages, an opportunity to engage in public diplomacy ahead of today's meeting.
Then, Garrett asked about the Russian fighter jet that repeatedly buzzed a U.S. destroyer, asking if Putin was "mocking you, and the U.S. military?"
With a slight smile, the President said "They're not interested in any kind of military confrontation with us, understanding that our conventional forces are significantly superior to the Russians'."
"We don't need a war," Obama added, "What we do need is a recognition that countries like Ukraine can have relationships with a whole range of their neighbors, and it is not up to anybody, whether it's Russia or the United States or anybody else, to make decisions for them."
Somewhere in Moscow, Putin is muttering to himself "Is not the size of boat, is motion of ocean."
Would it be more viscerally satisfying to have a President say "You know what? Fuck that guy and the horse he shirtlessly rode in on"? Yes, but that wouldn't be very productive. This will have to do.
What's also interesting about this interview is that it was conducted by the White House reporter. Often, when an opportunity to interview the President comes up, the networks will send in the evening news anchor, which can be frustrating, because White House reporters know every syllable that comes out of the administration, so they're not going to waste time asking questions that have already been answered, and they're much better equipped to ask a pertinent follow-up on the fly. That's especially important when interviewing President Obama, who isn't known for his short answers. If you waste a question with him, you're wasting a good chunk of your interview.
It's also worth noting that, at Tuesday's White House briefing, Jay Carney was asked if the press would have an opportunity to ask the President about the situation in Ukraine. He said "he’s, I’m sure, going to speak about Ukraine in the coming days and weeks, especially in encounters with the press if reporters ask him about it," and added "Sometimes when the press gets a chance to ask about a variety of subjects they don’t always ask about the ones that you might think they would. But we’ll see."