Putin's Emboldened Action in Ukraine Is Not Because of Trump, but Because of Obama

(Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

In the last several weeks as we have watched Putin command the Russian Army to action in invading Ukraine, many people have looked to Trump’s record with Putin as a time in which Putin became emboldened to action against their neighbor. Certainly, Trump’s talk on Putin has been at times sycophantic, something this author will not discount. However, referring to someone as a “genius” can carry with it, alternative meanings.

For instance, when it comes to people like David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel, I can admire their genius within politics and hold them in utter contempt because of how they choose to use their gifts. Adolf Hitler was a genius as an orator, but a genocidal sociopath. I do not presume to understand Trump’s motivations in his less-than-polished statements about the Russian leader; however, I simply state that Trump can believe Putin is a genius and a sociopath. While I can think Trump is a genius in manipulating the media (and trust me… he is), I can disagree with him on things like increasing deficit spending and his lowest-common-denominator rhetoric.

When it came to Putin though, the left and the media (but I repeat myself) did their damnedest to tie Trump to Putin and Russia, despite the total lack of evidence of such a connection. Whether it was Russia-gate, in which Trump and his officials were never charged, or lofty stories of Trump and his behavior with Russian prostitutes, or even flat out fabrications, like was spun regarding Russian bounties on American servicemen in Syria, the media went to all lengths to make Trump appear weak against Putin and the Russians.

Yet one stark reality cannot be ignored: Putin took no action against any of his neighbors during the Trump Administration.

Regardless of Trump’s statements (which I often took issue with), the result of his foreign policy led to the lack of the entry of the US in any additional foreign conflicts for the first time in decades. That includes saber-rattling with any foreign powers.

Meanwhile, when you look at Trump’s predecessor, the same cannot be said.

Beginning immediately in 2009, Obama faced Russian games in Crimea in Ukraine. Russia, which had been exerting influence in the region towards the end of 2008 (after Obama’s election but before he took office) thrust the new leader (Obama) into a place many felt he was unprepared to be. Obama sat idly by and watched as Putin and the Russians pushed the area to the brink of war.

In the months leading up to the conflict, the Russians had been issuing Russian passports to residents of other countries, an act which granted those people the rights of other Russian citizens, including the protection of the Russian military, should they need it. Protests, largely organized and funded by Russia, began popping up in Crimea, sending the region into chaos. Of course, this was the goal of the Russians, so they could use this conflict as a reason to enter Ukraine to reestablish peace on behalf of the (new) Russian citizens living in that region.

Obama did nothing.

During the 2012 election for U.S. President, Mitt Romney was asked by Wolf Blitzer about the United States’ number one geopolitical foe. Without hesitation, Romney responded “Russia.” This drew mocking from the left, leading to an exchange with Barack Obama during a debate months later, in which Obama almost laughed at Romney regarding his response:

“Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia … the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Yet just months before Obama’s mocking of Romney, Obama was the one capitulating to the Russians, when during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, Obama was caught on a hot mic promising to lighten up on the demands on the Russians, after the election in November.

“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Then-Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev responded:

“I understand. I transmit this (inaudible) to Vladimir.”

Here we had the President of the United States promising to compromise on the national security interests of both the United States and her allies, to capitulate to the Russians and more exactly, Vladimir Putin. The same hot mic moment from Trump would have (justifiably) earned him the disdain of the press and the rest of Americans. The only reason why Obama would have more flexibility after the election is that he intended to lie about his intentions during the election — only to reverse course after the election when he didn’t have to worry about polls and being accountable.

Later in 2014, the Russians then went as far as to annex the Crimea region of Ukraine, without the U.S. as much as lifting a finger. Gone was the tough talk of red lines and preserving democracy. Was this some of the “flexibility” spoken of?

The issue with attempting to blame Trump for Ukraine is that it isn’t supported by the record at hand.  Putin had an influence over Obama and knew first-hand that Obama was never going to follow through with red lines or demands issued upon Russia. If anything, Obama’s failure came from his lack of willingness to admit that he was out of his element when it came to foreign policy.  And this, from the man who won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Why else would Putin have paused his foreign expansion aspirations during the Trump Administration, only to resume them upon Biden’s inauguration? While Putin may not have feared or been concerned about Trump on a personal level, it was Trump’s unpredictability that made Trump a threat to Putin. Obama and Biden are reliably cowards, talking the tough talk, but then tip-toeing around Putin and the Russians when walking the walk is required.

With Trump, the only reliable thing about him is his total unpredictability. The man is a walking wild card. Sure, Putin could have gotten away with the same action under Trump, but he could also have ended up with a mushroom cloud over Moscow. Either potential was just as likely in Putin’s mind. Putin weighed the risks and decided against it. With Biden, the risk of any actual and lasting consequences is so minute, Putin has no choice but to act.

This isn’t praising Putin; in fact, the only reason why Putin even has a chance is as a result of Obama and Biden’s foreign policy failures. Say what you want to about Trump, but there wasn’t this same fight under his administration.