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How Flexible is Vladimir Putin?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last May, the world was treated to an unprecedented spectacle. President Obama was meeting in Seoul, South Korea, with leaders of the G-8 (G-10? G-20?) He was caught on a live mic talking with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Mr. Obama wanted no disturbances in foreign policy to roil the waters. He wanted smooth sailing to re-election in November.

President Obama: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it's important for him to give me space."
President Medvedev: "Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…"
President Obama: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."
President Medvedev: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."

Somehow, the Libyans in Benghazi missed the flexibility memo. But the Russians got the message loud and clear: The President of the United States wanted peace in our time.

The Russians have had four years to take the measure of this administration. President Obama’s one-time rival and possible successor, Hillary Clinton began our new relationship with Russia by meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. She thought it would be clever to present the dour Russian diplomat with a red plastic button with the Russian word for “re-set” on it. You know, like Staples’ red button motto: “That was easy.”

Well, it wasn’t. Lavrov was not amused. “You got it wrong,” he said. Did she ever! State Department gnomes had used the wrong word for re-set. The Russian word they chose means “overcharge.” And they didn’t even use the Russians’ Cyrillic alphabet. If Dan Quayle had messed up like this the media would be hooting all the way to Saturday Night Live.


The British media, however, always delights in highlighting flatfooted missteps by clumsy Yanks. The BBC headlined their story “Button Gaffe Embarrasses Clinton.”

But the Beeb got their story wrong, too. Nothing embarrasses a Clinton. We have George Stephanopoulos’s word on that: “The Clintons have no shame; it’s a great advantage in politics.” So it has proved to be.

A year later, in 2010, President Obama was able to host Dmitri Medvedev for a “summit” at Ray’s Hell Burger, an Arlington joint the president likes. This was just days after the FBI had uncovered a large Russian spy ring. Ten agents were nabbed, not questioned, not even patted down, and given first class airfare home. Suddenly, it seemed, we were all back in the USSR.

Not to worry, though. President Obama found that an opportune time to sign a one-sided arms control treaty Russia had wanted. Trust, don’t verify.

The Obama administration decided to stiff-arm the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians in order to make nice to Vladimir Putin. So President Obama ditched anti-missile defense the Eastern European NATO partners had been relying on.

The idea was to get Russian cooperation on matters like restraining Iran’s lunge for nuclear weapons. Like helping out on Syria.


Don’t hold your breath. The Russians have been working hard to pull the teeth of any sanctions on Iran, helping the mullahs evade sanctions.

Finally, we have Hillary’s swan song: The outgoing Secretary of State sternly warns the Kremlin (and China, for good measure) they will “pay a price” for failing to back the Obama administration’s plans for Syria, whatever they may be.

Exactly what price will they pay, Madame Secretary? The past four years have abundantly shown Moscow and Beijing that this administration’s words are empty.

Long gone are the days when the KGB took President Reagan’s measure:

“With Reagan,” the spymasters told their Kremlin superiors, “words are deeds.” With Obama, deeds are words.

If you doubt that, consider Mr. Obama’s first Executive Order. Number it Executive Order Zero. With cameras clicking and boom microphones straining to record his every syllable in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama decreed:


So let it be written. So let it be done. Whatever.

We do not want a new Cold War with Russia. Gov. Romney erred gravely in publicly calling Russia “our Number One Strategic Enemy.” President Reagan never said such a thing publicly.


Instead, he urged Americans not to blind themselves to the machinations of an “evil empire.” Reagan let Pravda howl—thus letting them admit he must have meant them. But he took care to be the great friend of the Russian people. Reagan stood for their freedom. He championed their religious liberty.

The Obama administration has returned to the invertebrate policies of the Carter administration with respect to Russia. We can expect nothing but failure from such flexibility.

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