Throughout both administrations of Obama, his foreign policy was grounded in the naive belief that Russia was not a force to be reckoned with. Whether it was the non-reaction to aggression in Georgia, the annexation of the Crimea, an invasion of eastern Ukraine, Russian entry into the Syrian civil war, or the alleged hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaigns by Russia, Obama’s actions were cautious at best and misguided at worse. Even the sanctions leveled against Russia in response to the Crimean annexation did little to deter future Russian interference elsewhere since Obama addressed Russia with so much restraint.
Obama’s policy towards Russia was grounded in three fatal errors. He failed to grasp the true nature of the Russian threat which was visibly captured in his restrained response to the annexation of Crimea. He developed a “long view” belief that Russia would eventually become more liberal. And he believed domestic politics would interfere with any response towards Russia for any of their aggressions. Russia was viewed (correctly) as a declining economy and, at best, a regional player or a spoiler on the international stage.
In one respect, he was not completely wrong. Despite its size, their GDP is roughly the size of Spain’s. It contributes a mere 1.5% to global GDP; the United States 25%. Without a healthy world oil price, its reliance on the energy sector to prop up the state makes things grim. The country was experiencing a decline in population as birth rates and life expectancy were decreasing, and people were emigrating in scores. Russia may still have nuclear weapons, but they were clearly no match for the United States or NATO. Therefore, Obama concluded that despite their divergent views on a plethora of issues, Russia could still be a partner, albeit a junior one, in areas of mutual interest despite the fact that Russian actions should have been ringing alarm bells.
One area where the reset clearly failed was over the issue of an ABM system for Europe. Bush used a lot of international political capital getting Poland and the Czech Republic to house bases for the system. In an effort to appease Russia who insisted it would upset the delicate balance of power in Europe, Obama abandoned the plan. The plan consisted of 10 interceptors and radar which in no way would have prevented a massive Russian attack. It was clearly designed to protect Europe from long-range Iranian missiles, not a Russian attack. What Russia opposed was not so much the placement of a few missiles and radar stations in Poland; he opposed the presence of US troops in Poland manning those facilities. As much as Bush used his capital, the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic stuck their necks out and Obama pulled the rug out from under them when he cancelled the proposal. Poland, in particular, was incensed. They publicly wondered whether Obama was abandoning them as an ally.
By 2012, Poland admitted that they made a mistake in not taking into consideration a change in leadership in the US while the Czechs were more blunt saying they would reject any future US proposals. The collateral damage to relationships with Poland and the Czech Republic in an effort to appease the Russian reset caused, indirectly, the rise of more authoritarian governments in those countries. Russia did not have to do anything to achieve this; the American voters in 2008 did the job for them.
Obama’s defenders argue that the ineffectiveness of the proposed missile shield was the motivating factor for the cancellation. They further argue that they were working on a new, more effective and realistic missile shield. There is one problem with that defense: In 2010, WikiLeaks released State Department documents and cables proving that appeasing Russia was the primary motivating factor. This was later proven in that “hot mic” moment between Obama and Russian president Medvedev with its talk about “flexibility” after he was reelected.
By the time Obama entered office, Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle had been complaining that Russia was cheating on the INF treaty negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987 that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons in Europe. While knowing that the cheating was a reality (they admitted it in 2014), the administration persisted in a new START treaty, rushed it through Congress, and kept previous knowledge of Russian cheating from Congress.
Upon his visit to Moscow, Obama delivered a public, but subtle, critique of Russian foreign policy vis-a-vis their relations with neighboring countries. That was followed up the next day at a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School calling for that reset in relations. He argued that America wanted a strong and prosperous Russia and that the old days of vying for ideological, economic and military spheres of influence was a thing of the past. It was a Utopian vision, but more so, it was naive.
Those speeches and ones delivered in Cairo and Prague later that year brought about tumult. The Arab Spring worked in a country like Tunisia, but was a disaster in Egypt and later Libya, but most so in Syria. The speech in Prague sold out two critical allies- the Czech Republic and Poland. Those speeches in Russia bought Obama the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, and Russian forces in Syria.
Obama entered office with a naive view of US-Russian relations and one that viewed previous foreign relations in conflict with his ideological beliefs. The whole reset was comically played out when Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva to meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. There, she presented him with the infamous, large red “reset” button with the word “peregruzka” on it. Clinton thought it meant “reset.” It actually means “overload.”
Obama made a “nuclear free world” a priority of his first term in office and was willing to achieve that by sacrificing American interests and those of our European allies on the altar of political vanity. Sacrificing Poland and the Czech Republic was a geopolitical blunder all in the name of appeasement of Russia. What he got in return was an increasingly aggressive Russia. Analysis has shown that a Russian invasion of the Baltic states would overwhelm NATO forces in short order. They were allowed to knowingly violate arms control treaties with impunity. All these naive actions created a cascade of events: the annexation of Crimea, a simmering war in eastern Ukraine, Russia bombings in Syria, the rise and spread of ISIS, and China’s aggressive actions in Asia and the South China Sea.
Obama’s foreign policy was an ideologically driven retreat from the world stage resulting in a surge of aggression by anti-American and anti-Western forces, alienation of allies, and empowerment of enemies. The list of sins committed by the Obama administration with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is long. Whether condoning an Iranian nuclear program or establishing false “red lines” in the sand in Syria, Obama likewise never backed down from his refusal to provide lethal aid to Ukraine under obvious invasion from Russia. To add insult to injury, he cut military spending while cracking down on fossil fuels. These latter two facts were sweet news to Russia since its economy is so dependent on oil prices.
When you put it all together one can come to no other conclusion than the fact that Obama was an unwitting stooge of Russia and, ultimately Putin. It was not achieved by any nefarious dealings on the part of Russia. It was attributable to his own naivete and weakness.
Domestically, the administration knew that Russian state actors were involved in a bribery, kickback and money laundering operation involving the sale of a uranium mining company with holdings in the United States (to be explored in detail later), yet let the deal go through nevertheless. If the right hand did not know what the left hand knew, that is hardly an excuse for their actions. In fact, it speaks to the disorganization of Obama’s foreign policy and gives rise to the very conspiracy theories they are forced to dispute. Perhaps there was nothing nefarious after all, but there are enough warning flags there to suggest the opposite.
The Russians have the best view of relations between the two countries when Sergei Lavrov said about Obama: “He had this quirk of putting personal before state. He left Trump with a horrible legacy in relations with Russia, which still has a certain effect.” How better to preserve a dubious foreign policy legacy than to shift the blame to someone else for your own shortcomings?
Next: A look at the three Horsemen of SpyGate starting with John Brennan