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President Obama waves as he arrives at the White House on March 5 from a trip to Connecticut. / Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP

A top White House official on Sunday dismissed criticism that President Obama's past foreign policy record influenced Russia's military action in Crimea.

Tony Blinken, a White House deputy national security adviser, said that the Republican argument that Obama has shown weakness on foreign policy -particularly in how he's dealt with the 3-year-old Syrian war - and thus emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops into the semi-autonomous Crimean region of Russia was hollow.

"The notion that this is somehow a result of Syria makes very little sense to me," Blinken said on CNN's State of the Union. "This is about Ukraine."

Last year, after previously calling the use of chemical weapons by Syria's Bashar Assad regime a "red line" that must not be crossed, Obama declined to take military action against the regime after it was determined Assad had deployed chemical weapons against the opposition.

The stout defense by a top foreign policy official at the White House comes after Republicans have pilloried Obama in recent days over the Crimea crisis.

On Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that Obama could take a more robust response, including conducting a joint military exercise with Poland and revisiting a U.S. proposal to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The project, intended to protect Europe from missile threat from Iran, is opposed by Moscow and was put on the back burner by Obama after he came into office and tried to reset frosty U.S-Russian relations.

"I worry when we begin to address the crisis, the first thing we do is take options off the table," Cheney told CBS's Face the Nation. "In the sense of saying 'no military.' [Obama] seems to operate that way most of the time. There are military options that don't involve putting groups on the ground in Crimea."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last week said that the crisis in Crimea was "the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, are among Republicans who have also taken shots at Obama's foreign policy acumen as the Crimea crisis has unfolded.

Russia "is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles," Rogers said.

Blinken noted that Russia also deployed troops into Georgia in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration.

"That's because this is not about what we do or we say in the first instance, it's about Russia and its perceived interests," Blinken said.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, also pushed back against the Republican criticism.

"Even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren't cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it," Gates said on Fox News Sunday.

"Some of the criticism, domestic criticism of the president, ought to be toned down while he's handling this crisis," Gates said. "My own view is, after all, Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or being unwilling to use military force."

Gates added that he believes Russia will maintain control of Crimea, which is set to hold a referendum on March 16 to decide if it will join Russia. Obama said last week the vote violate Ukraine's constitution and international law.

"I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia's hand," Gates said.

Obama has invited Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House on Wednesday for talks about the ongoing crisis.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: White House pushes back on Ukraine criticism

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