Putin had Obama pegged as a naïf from the start and he’s eaten our lunch ever since. The Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes reports for the December issue of Townhall Magazine.
It would be difficult to dispute that the Obama administration’s Russia policy, so hopefully launched as a “reset” in relations by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early 2009, has become little more than a policy of “regret.”
Indeed, who could forget the now-infamous scene when the New York Senator-cum-Secretary of State presented her counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with the large red button they’d push together to “reset” the relationship.
Of course, instead of playing along, Lavrov announced to the room filled with staff and reporters in Geneva, “You got it wrong.” He then informed Clinton that the Russian word inscribed on the big red button actually read “over-charged” rather than “reset.”
Embarrassed but seemingly unfazed by the translation error, which Clinton said that the Foggy Bottom staff had worked very hard to get right, America’s chief diplomat parried Lavrov: “Don’t worry, we won’t let you do that to us.”
Actually, that is exactly what the Russians have done over the last six years. The administration’s stewardship of Washington-Moscow ties hasn’t ended what President Obama called upon entering office the “dangerous drift” in U.S.-Russia relations.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The relationship with Russia has gone from lukewarm, at best, under Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during Obama’s first term, to downright frosty under Russian President Vladimir Putin during Obama’s second term.
Ties between Washington and Moscow have become tense, testy, and just terrible.
Worse, it’s not just that bilateral relations have become Cold War-like more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has also bested the White House internationally on a number of key fronts.
Missile Defense Mess-up
One of the first cozying-up efforts that Washington undertook to redirect ties with Moscow was to axe the President Bush-era defense program that the Russians were most unhappy about: missile defense.
During the “W” administration, the United States worked tirelessly to get countries in Central Europe to host elements of an American missile defense system aimed at the burgeoning Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
After years of diplomatic heavy-lifting, Warsaw and Prague agreed to host ground-based interceptors and a radar system to address the threat radiating from Tehran, which was discovered to have had a secret nuclear program a few years earlier.
This European system was designed as a “bookend” to the missile defense architecture Bush built in Alaska and California to protect the homeland against the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threat.
The Kremlin claimed that the American system in Europe would undermine its nuclear deterrent, no matter what the laws of physics said. Equally troubling for Moscow was the system’s location in its old (Soviet Union) stomping grounds.
Obama, not a fan of anyone’s nuclear deterrent, decided that a good way to reboot the new relationship was to do away with this burr under the saddle of U.S.-Russia relations by canceling the Euro-American system in late 2009.
Obama’s acolytes insisted that the Bush-era system was less than optimal for the Iranian threat and that a new missile defense set-up was needed, obscuring the notion that the real White House motivation was Kremlin sensitivities.
The White House’s willingness to roll over for the Kremlin on missile defense was exposed in a 2012 hot-mic moment at a Seoul conference when Obama whispered to Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama said. “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Likewise, sotto voce, Medvedev responded: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” referring to his pal Putin who had just won election to become Russia’s president, again, after a calculated spin as prime minister (interestingly, Medvedev is now Russia’s prime minister).
Unfortunately, while the Bush system would have been fielded by 2013, the Obama system will not be operational until 2018-2020, three to five years after U.S. intelligence expects that Iran will be able to field an intercontinental ballistic missile.
New START Down the Wrong Road
Undoubtedly gleeful about America’s self-altered ambitions for missile defense in Europe, Medvedev then softened to the idea of another Obama fairy tale: nuclear disarmament.
Obama believes in a “world without nuclear weapons,” and the White House seemed to fancy the notion that more strategic arsenal cuts would make Obama a veritable “Proliferation Pied Piper,” encouraging others (e.g., North Korea and Iran) to follow us down the road to “nuclear zero.”
Not seeing this as merely tilting at nuclear weapons windmills, the White House decided to engage the Kremlin in another round of nuclear arms cuts beyond the 2002 U.S.-Russia Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.
In 2010, Washington and Moscow agreed to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, which would obligate both sides to further reduce their nuclear arsenals below SORT levels.
While there was opposition to New START in the Democrat-controlled Senate, it was ultimately ratified by the chamber in a lame duck session after the 2010 congressional elections by a 71 to 26 vote. Obama signed it in 2011.
In the final analysis, the treaty required the United States to reduce its nuclear arsenal and nuclear-capable platforms while allowing Russia to increase its nuclear forces since they were already below the agreed-to limits.
Essentially, the “Reduction” in New START applied just to us.
The United States would build down while Russia could build up, which is exactly what Moscow is apparently doing: In late August of this year, Putin proclaimed that Russia is “strengthening our nuclear deterrent.”
It gets worse.
Russia has been accused of violating the 1987 U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that the arms control agreement prohibits. Some of that proscribed missile testing may have been going on during the New START negotiations, in the view of some experts.
Despite this, according to a Washington Post op-ed penned by a former senior arms control official, in 2013 the White House reportedly approached the Kremlin about dropping both sides’ nuclear arsenal beyond New START.
That same op-ed reported that the Kremlin refused the new offer, but that did not deter the White House from re-approaching the Kremlin as recently as this September with a request to reconsider new nuke talks.
Middle East Meddling
The reset in relations under Obama did not seem to change Russia’s mind about mucking around in the Middle East, especially on issues that ran counter to America’s interests, such as Iran’s nuclear program and the civil war in Syria.
Despite ongoing concerns about the direction, intentions, and opacity of Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow has been willing to assist the Islamic State with its atomic affairs by building Tehran’s first nuclear reactor and supplying it with nuclear fuel since 2010.
The Russian-built reactor at Bushehr not only supports oil-rich Iran’s claim that it should be allowed to enrich uranium for reactor fuel, which could also support a nuclear weapons program, but Bushehr can also produce fissile material for atomic bombs.
Russia also hasn’t been helpful in Syria. Damascus is a longtime partner of Moscow’s, going back to the Cold War. Russia even has a naval base at Tartus, providing its navy unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea.
More controversial, the Kremlin has been supporting the roguish regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, which has been involved in a civil war lasting three-plus years and taking nearly 200,000 lives.
During the early days of what started as an “Arab Spring” uprising in Syria, Obama noted that Assad’s days were numbered, and perhaps that would have been true without Russia’s moral and military support to the regime.
Moscow supplied a considerable amount of military materiel to Damascus while the Kremlin bucked the White House several times by vetoing United Nations Resolutions against the Assad regime.
Spy Safe Haven
During the Cold War, spy versus spy was a fact of life for U.S.-Soviet relations. It took a hiatus after the fall of the Soviet Union, but seems to be back in full force now with Russian espionage a major American counterintelligence concern.
For example, in 2010, the FBI busted up a spy ring of nearly a dozen Russian “sleeper” agents that spanned the country from New York to Seattle and were seemingly at the beck and call of Kremlin spymasters.
Then in 2013, Moscow made a mockery, and a video, of an alleged CIA officer outfitted like he just stepped out of central casting in a Hollywood “B” spy flick, replete with an ill-fitting wig, dark glasses, a compass, and pocketsful of cash.
The espionage escapade, which aired on Russian television and found its way to American media, was meant to embarrass the White House and send a warning from the Russian security services to the CIA.
Of course, the most egregious affront to Washington by Moscow, in spydom or perhaps overall, was l’affaire Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor who stole some of America’s most sensitive intelligence before fleeing overseas in 2013.
Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong, but was able to evade the long arm of the law by jetting off to Russia, where the spy-on-the-run plotted his next move. After languishing in “no-man’s land” in Moscow’s airport for 39 days, Russia offered him “temporary” asylum.
Snowden continued to leak U.S. national security information like a sieve, far beyond his reported concerns about privacy issues, from his spy safe haven in Russia, where his one-year asylum eventually became an offer of a three-year residency.
In another tweak of Obama’s nose, this year Snowden made a cameo on Putin’s annual Q&A television show. Snowden asked his protégé president: “Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?”
Naturally, the former KGB colonel said: Nyet.
The most recent insult to reset injury is Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Beginning this year, a series of events led to Russia’s outright annexation of Crimea, the storied peninsula along the Black Sea.
While the Russians have had a presence in Crimea for many years, it was given to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 by Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev as a “gift” to the Ukrainian people.
This year’s political crisis began when Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich failed to follow through on an economic integration deal with the European Union, a proposal that Putin opposed. As a result, a popular uprising booted Yanukovich from office and sent Ukraine into turmoil.
To stem the movement of pro-Western Ukrainian politicians toward Europe and out of the Russian sphere of influence, Putin made a move on Crimea, eventually reuniting it with Mother Russia.
Sensing a divided and weak response on the part of the West, Putin decided to press the offensive further by unsettling eastern Ukraine, using Moscow-supported, pro-Russian rebels.
Moscow wanted to make sure all concerned knew that Crimea would be only the beginning of Ukraine’s dismemberment by Russia if Kiev continued to move further from Moscow and closer to the West, especially if that included tight ties with NATO.
Tragically, amid the conflict in eastern Ukraine, a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot out of the sky by a Russian air defense system in July, killing 298 passengers and crew flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
As of this writing, no one has been held to account for the shoot-down, which may have originated with the transfer of an advanced surface to air missile battery from Russian forces to the Ukrainian rebels.
If asked, not that they would want to discuss U.S.-Russia relations considering the state of bilateral ties after six years in charge, the Obama administration would likely say that the reset has seen some “successes.”
The White House would probably throw out as “good news” the signing of New START, some cooperation with the Kremlin on addressing Iran’s nuclear and North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, and their bilateral effort removing chemical weapons from Syria after the regime was discovered using them during the civil war.
That is pretty thin gruel for a major foreign policy initiative, but fair enough.
Of course, one should keep in mind that any help the United States received from Russia on these pressing international security challenges is a function of the fact that they support American, and, more importantly, Russian, interests in Moscow’s eyes.
For instance, the U.S.-Russia agreement on removing Syrian chemical weapons kept American armed forces from pounding Moscow’s ally in Damascus, which might have meant the end of the Kremlin’s cronies if it had come to pass.
Moreover, the Syrian agreement also made Washington look feckless by exposing Obama’s “redline” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons as meaningless, broadly undermining American credibility with friends and foes alike.
The problem is that while Team Obama wanted to show goodwill, seek compromise, look conciliatory, and be anything but Bush in its relations with the Medvedev-Putin regime, the approach came across as weakness, a major fault in dealing with the Russians who, more than anything else, respect strength.
Indeed, weakness is the last thing you want to show when dealing with a foreign leader like Putin, who prides himself on being the alpha male; a leader who has been willingly photographed, often shirtless, playing judo, riding a steed, tracking tigers, firing weapons, and so on.
The White House also failed to understand that the Kremlin’s ambitions to return Russia to its former glory as a global power, which meant that the United States’ position in the international system had to be diminished.
Unfortunately, it seems that, on balance, America’s efforts to reset relations with Russia failed, and failed miserably. Moreover, it might be argued that the Russian rulers handily outmaneuvered, even outwitted, the Obama administration.
In the end, America’s Russia policy has not only gone from reset to regret, but may turn into retreat. This sad state of affairs will be difficult, if not impossible, for Washington to recover from during the last two years of Obama’s term in office.
The next White House, whether it be Republican or Democrat, will be left to manage run-down relations with Russia following years of seemingly continuous catastrophe vis-a-vis Kremlin counterparts.
But worst of all, evolved Russian views of American strength and resolve increases the chances of misperceptions, miscalculations, maneuvers, and mistakes by Moscow, resulting in problems that might have been prevented otherwise. Indeed, we are already seeing them.
Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Follow him on Twitter: @Brookes_Peter