Obama: Ukraine, Syria are not pieces on ‘some Cold-War chessboard’

President Barack Obama speaks at the North American Leaders Summit closing news conference in Toluca, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Obama was in Toluca for a one-day summit with Mexican and Canadian leaders, meeting on issues of trade and other neighbor-to-neighbor interests, even as Congress is pushing back against some of his top cross-border agenda items. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)

President Barack Obama denied late Wednesday that Russian-U.S. tensions over Syria and Ukraine were playing out on “some Cold-War chessboard” even as he acknowledged deep divisions between Moscow and Washington.

Obama, speaking at a joint press conference after a North American leaders’ summit, also flatly denied that the United States had played a role in stirring up the people against their government, saying that the uprisings “arose organically from within those countries.”

“I do think it is worth noting that you have, in this situation, one country that has clearly been a client state of Russia, another whose government is currently being supported by Russia,” he said.

But “our approach in the United States is not to see these as some Cold-War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia,” the president continued.

“Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make the decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power,” he said.

“Mr. Putin has a different view on many of those issues, and I don't think that there's any secret on that,” he said, referring to Russia’s president.

Russian-U.S. tensions have spiked partly as a consequence of both conflicts.

In Syria, Russia supports and arms strongman Bashar Assad and has joined China in blocking U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council measures meant to weaken him. The United States says Assad has no future leading his country and has provided aid to rebels seeking his removal.

In Ukraine, Russia has bluntly accused the West stirring up the political opposition, resulting in deadly clashes between protestors and government forces. The United States on Wednesday announced sanctions on about 20 senior civilian Ukrainian leaders deemed to have played a role in the bloody crackdown on protests against President Viktor Yanukovych.

“My government and Vice President Biden and I personally have expressed to President Yanukovych the need for him to recognize the spirit of the Ukrainian people and work with that, as opposed to trying to repress it,” Obama said. “And so we'll continue to stand on the side of the people.”

“There are times, I hope, where Russia will recognize that over the long term, they should be on board with those values and interests as well,” Obama said. “Right now, there are times where we have strong disagreements. And when I speak to Mr. Putin, I'm very candid about those disagreements, even as we will continue to pursue cooperation with Russia on areas where we have shared concerns.”