For eight years, the Obama administration misjudged Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as it misjudged most of the Middle East, China, and the rest of the world as well. Obama got wise to Russia only when Putin imperiled not just U.S. strategic interests and government records but also supposedly went so far as to tamper with sacrosanct Democratic-party secrets, thereby endangering the legacy of Barack Obama.
Putin was probably bewildered by Obama’s media-driven and belated concern, given that the Russians, like the Chinese, had in the past hacked U.S. government documents that were far more sensitive than the information it may have mined and leaked in 2016 — and they received nothing but an occasional Obama “cut it out” whine. Neurotic passive-aggression doesn’t merely bother the Russians; it apparently incites and emboldens them.
Obama’s strange approach to Putin since 2009 apparently has run something like the following. Putin surely was understandably angry with the U.S. under the cowboy imperialist George W. Bush, according to the logic of the “reset.” After all, Obama by 2009 was criticizing Bush more than he was Putin for the supposed ills of the world. But Barack Obama was not quite an American nationalist who sought to advance U.S. interests.
Instead, he posed as a new sort of soft-power moralistic politician — not seen since Jimmy Carter — far more interested in rectifying the supposed damage rather than the continuing good that his country has done. If Putin by 2008 was angry at Bush for his belated pushback over Georgia, at least he was not as miffed at Bush as Obama himself was.
Reset-button policy then started with the implicit agreement that Russia and the Obama administration both had legitimate grievances against a prior U.S. president — a bizarre experience for even an old hand like Putin. (Putin probably thought that the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq were a disaster not on ethical or even strategic grounds but because the U.S. had purportedly let the country devolve into something like what Chechnya was before Putin’s iron grip.)
In theory, Obama would captivate Putin with his nontraditional background and soaring rhetoric, the same way he had charmed urban progressive elites at home and Western European socialists abroad. One or two more Cairo speeches would assure Putin that a new America was more interested in confessing its past sins to the Islamic world than confronting its terrorism. And Obama would continue to show his bona fides by cancelling out Bush initiatives such as missile defense in Eastern Europe, muting criticism of Russian territorial expansionism, and tabling the updating and expansion of the American nuclear arsenal. All the while, Obama would serve occasional verbal cocktails for Putin’s delight — such as the hot-mic promise to be even “more flexible” after his 2012 reelection, the invitation of Russia into the Middle East to get the Obama administration off the hook from enforcing red lines over Syrian WMD use, and the theatrical scorn for Mitt Romney’s supposedly ossified Cold War–era worries about Russian aggression.
As Putin was charmed, appeased, and supposedly brought on board, Obama increasingly felt free to enlighten him (as he does almost everyone) about how his new America envisioned a Westernized politically correct world. Russians naturally would not object to U.S. influence if it was reformist and cultural rather than nationalist, economic, and political — and if it sought to advance universal progressive ideals rather than strictly American agendas. Then, in its own self-interest, a grateful Russia would begin to enact at home something akin to Obama’s helpful initiatives: open up its society, with reforms modeled after those of the liberal Western states in Europe.
Putin quickly sized up this naïf. His cynicism and cunning told him that Obama was superficially magnanimous mostly out of a desire to avoid confrontations. And as a Russian, he was revolted by the otherworldly and unsolicited advice from a pampered former American academic. Putin continued to crack down at home and soon dressed up his oppression with a propagandistic anti-American worldview: America’s liberal culture reflected not freedom but license; its global capitalism promoted cultural decadence and should not serve as anyone’s blueprint.
Putin’s cynicism and cunning told him that Obama was superficially magnanimous mostly out of a desire to avoid confrontations.
As the West would pursue atheism, indulgence, and globalism, Putin would return Russia to Orthodoxy, toughness, and fervent nationalism — a czarist appeal that would resonate with other autocracies abroad and mask his own oppressions, crony profiteering, and economic mismanagement at home. Note that despite crashing oil prices and Russian economic crises, Putin believed (much as Mussolini did) that at least for a time, a strong leader in a weak country can exercise more global clout than a weak leader in a strong country — and that Russians could for a while longer put up with poverty and lack of freedom if they were at least feared or respected abroad. He also guessed that just as the world was finally nauseated by Woodrow Wilson’s six months of moralistic preening at Versailles, so too it would tire of the smug homilies of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry.
Putin grew even more surprised at Obama’s periodic red lines, deadlines, and step-over lines, whose easy violations might unite global aggressors in the shared belief that America was hopelessly adrift, easy to manipulate, obnoxious in its platitudinous sermonizing, and certainly not the sort of strong-horse power that any aggressors should fear.
Perhaps initially Putin assumed that Obama’s lead-from-behind redistributionist foreign policy (the bookend to his “you didn’t build that” domestic recalibration) was some sort of clever plot to suggest that a weak United States could be taken advantage of — and then Obama would strike hard when Putin fell for the bait and overreached. But once Putin realized that Obama was serious in his fantasies, he lost all respect for his benefactor, especially as an increasingly petulant and politically enfeebled Obama compensated by teasing Putin as a macho class cut-up — just as he had often caricatured domestic critics who failed to appreciate his godhead.
Putin offered America’s enemies and fence-sitting opportunists a worldview that was antithetical to Obama’s. Lead-from-behind foreign policy was just provocative enough to discombobulate a few things overseas but never strong or confident enough to stay on to fix them. When China, Iran, North Korea, ISIS, or other provocateurs challenged the U.S., Putin was at best either indifferent and at worst supportive of our enemies, on the general theory that anything the U.S. sought to achieve, Russia would be wise to oppose.
Putin soon seemed to argue that the former Soviet Republics had approximately the same relation to Russia as the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have to the United States. Russia was simply defining and protecting its legitimate sphere of influence, as the post-colonial U.S. had done (albeit without the historic costs in blood and treasure).
Russia had once lost a million civilians at the siege of Leningrad when Hitler’s Army Group North raced through the Baltic States (picking up volunteers as it went) and met up with the Finns. At Sevastopol, General Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army may well have inflicted 100,000 Russian Crimean casualties in a successful but nihilistic effort to take and nearly destroy the fortress. The Kiev Pocket and destruction of the Southwestern Front of the Red Army in the Ukraine in September 1941 (700,000 Russians killed, captured, or missing) may have been the largest encirclement and mass destruction of an army in military history.
For Putin, these are not ancient events but rather proof of why former Soviet bloodlands were as much Russian as Puerto Rico was considered American. We find such reasoning tortured, given Ukrainian and Crimean desires to be free; Putin insists that Russian ghosts still flitter over such hallowed ground.
Reconstruction of Putin’s mindset is not justification for his domestic thuggery or foreign expansionism at the expense of free peoples. But it does remind us that he is particularly ill-suited to listen to pat lectures from American sermonizers whose unwillingness to rely on force to back up their sanctimony is as extreme as their military assets are overwhelming. Putin would probably be less provoked by a warning from someone deemed strong than he would be by obsequious outreach from someone considered weak.
There were areas where Obama might have sought out Putin in ways advantageous to the U.S., such as wooing him away from Iran or playing him off against China or lining him up against North Korea. But ironically, Obama was probably more interested in inflating the Persian and Shiite regional profile than was Putin himself.
Putin would probably be less provoked by a warning from someone deemed strong than he would be by obsequious outreach from someone considered weak.
If Obama wished to invite Putin into the Middle East, then at least he might have made an effort to align him with Israel, the Gulf States, Egypt, and Jordan, in pursuit of their shared goal of wiping out radical Islamic terrorism. In the process, these powers might have grown increasingly hostile to Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran. But Obama was probably more anti-Israeli than Putin, and he also disliked the moderate Sunni autocracies more than Putin himself did. As far as China, Putin was delighted that Obama treated Chinese aggression in the Spratly Islands as Obama had treated his own in Ukraine: creased-brow angst about bad behavior followed by indifference.
The irony of the failed reset was that in comparative terms the U.S. — given its newfound fossil-fuel wealth and energy independence, the rapid implosion of the European Union, and its continuing technological superiority — should have been in an unusually strong position as the leader of the West. Unhinged nuclear proliferation, such as in Pakistan and North Korea and soon in Iran, is always more of a long-term threat to a proximate Russia than to a distant America. And Russia’s unassimilated and much larger Muslim population is always a far more existential threat to Moscow than even radical Islamic terrorism is at home to the U.S.
In other words, there were realist avenues for cooperation that hinged on a strong and nationalist U.S. clearly delineating areas where cooperation benefitted both countries (and the world). Other spheres in which there could be no American–Russian consensus could by default have been left to sort themselves out in a may-the-best-man-win fashion, hopefully peaceably.
Such détente would have worked only if Obama had forgone all the arc-of-history speechifying and the adolescent putdowns, meant to project strength in the absence of quiet toughness.
Let us hope that Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, and Jim Mattis know this and thus keep mostly silent, remind Putin privately (without trashing a former president) that the aberrant age of Obama is over, carry huge sticks, work with Putin where and when it is in our interest, acknowledge his help, seek to thwart common enemies — and quietly find ways to utilize overwhelming American military and economic strength to discourage him from doing something unwise for both countries.