US sanctions helped ensure that Russia’s economy would be devastated by the plunging oil price, President Barack Obama said, as he lauded the success of “strategic patience” in combating his counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Mr Obama launched a confident defence of his Russia policy in an interview published on Monday, arguing that Mr Putin — who was lauded by some as a “genius” several months ago for annexing Crimea — did not seem “so smart” today as Russia’s economy buckled.
The US president suggested that the plunging price of crude oil, which has dropped more than 50 per cent since June due partly to booming production from US shale producers, had played perfectly into the US’s plans for taming Mr Putin.
“[T]heir economy was already contracting and capital was fleeing even before oil collapsed. And part of our rationale in this process was that the only thing keeping that economy afloat was the price of oil,” he told NPR radio.
The US calculated that “over time [sanctions] would make the economy of Russia sufficiently vulnerable that if and when there were disruptions with respect to the price of oil — which, inevitably, there are going to be sometime, if not this year then next year or the year after — that they’d have enormous difficulty managing it,” Mr Obama said.
Russia’s economy contracted last month for the first time in five years as the oil price continued to fall and the value of the rouble plunged, sparking warnings from analysts that a recession was imminent.
The US has led the imposition of western sanctions that virtually exclude Russian banks and companies from international capital markets, although some European leaders have been reluctant to be as tough as Washington.
The benchmark Brent crude price has dropped from more than $115 a barrel in June to under $58, a fall precipitated by America’s shale oil boom — which has reduced US import needs — and weak demand in Europe and Asia.
Mr Obama’s interview, which was recorded before he travelled to Hawaii for the holidays on December 19, came at the end of a year in which his foreign policy has been under fire. But Mr Obama said that over six years in the White House he had learned the value of “having some strategic patience”.
“You’ll recall that three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius and he had outmanoeuvred all of us and he had, you know, bullied and . . . strategised his way into expanding Russian power,” Mr Obama said.
“I said at the time we don’t want war with Russia but we can apply steady pressure . . . being the backbone of an international coalition to oppose Russia’s violation of another country’s sovereignty, and that over time this would be a strategic mistake by Russia.
“And today, you know, I’d sense that at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.”
Following criticism that he was slow to react to Ebola and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, Mr Obama ended the year by taking bold steps to normalise relations with Cuba, despite opposition from many Republicans.
Mr Obama said Iran was a more threatening and sophisticated country than Cuba, but he did not rule out re-establishing a US embassy in Tehran if a deal could first be struck to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
“If we can take that big first step, then my hope would be that that would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over time,” he told NPR.
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