Earlier this month, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a statement saying that Russia is once again involving itself in an American presidential election. This report comes after months of speculation regarding Russia’s “bounty program,” in which Taliban fighters were allegedly paid by the Kremlin for targeting American troops in Afghanistan. The bounties, the electoral interference, and Russia’s multifarious acts of aggression are all bullet points on the long list of reasons why Mitt Romney deserves an apology.
Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama famously attempted to “reset” the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia. Relations between the two countries remained relatively warm in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But as the 20th century ended and the 21st century began, Vladimir Putin assumed power from Boris Yeltsin and the relationship changed.
Under Putin, Russia became much more aggressive on the international stage. A former KGB agent, he entered office pining for his own reset — a return of Russia to its glory days. Tensions between the United States and Russia once again grew heated as Putin, in response to America’s planned installation of a ballistic-missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could purportedly penetrate any shield. The test was accompanied by renewed warnings that, if plans for the missile-defense system were brought to fruition, Russia would target missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic.
Despite Putin’s increasing boldness on the international stage, the Obama administration declined to take the Russian threat seriously.
During the 2012 general-election campaign, Romney called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe.” In the cycle’s final debate, Obama mocked Romney’s warning, remarking that, “the 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” It was a canned, stale one-liner even at the time, but the media voraciously lapped it up. With the benefit of eight years of hindsight, it reads more like Gerald Ford’s “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” than the Reaganesque zinger it was meant to be. In fact, Reagan often used a Russian proverb — “trust, but verify” — to describe his approach to negotiations with Gorbachev. The Obama administration’s approach to Putin wasn’t so cautious.
Three months after Obama’s reelection, American fighter jets intercepted two Russian bombers, both equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles, circling the U.S. territory of Guam. The same year, Russia announced plans for a new ICBM system. When Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Obama, doubling down on his erroneous initial assessment, dismissed the annexation as the work of a “regional power,” not a security threat. According to a former Taliban spokesman interviewed by the Daily Beast earlier this year, Russia began paying militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan at around the same time.
Alongside revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election came limited recognition that Obama and his ilk were wrong to turn Romney’s prescient warning into a joke. But now, amid news of the bounty program and the NCSC’s warning of repeated Russian election interference, the Obama administration’s negligence has become even more apparent.
In light of the current political moment, appropriate criticisms of previous administrations seem trite. Under a president seemingly in thrall to various authoritarian leaders, during a mismanaged global pandemic, Obama’s foreign-policy missteps might appear undeserving of too much attention. But much like ideas, policies have consequences, and the Obama administration’s reckless handling of Russia paved the way for a resurgent Putin regime’s belligerence.
Where does that leave us now? In much the same place we were under Obama: saddled with a government that needs to wake up and take the Russian threat seriously. During the Trump administration, we’ve seen Democrats adopt traditionally Republican positions that the GOP has seemingly abandoned. The Democratic Party has become more open to free trade, signaled support for international institutions, and grown more hawkish on Russia and China. Though the Democrats’ about-face on these issues is certainly welcome, it is almost certainly born of partisanship, not philosophy. If Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, it will be up to him to prove otherwise — to heed the mistakes of the previous two administrations and meet the Russian threat head-on, even when there’s no obvious domestic political advantage to be had from doing so, because American national security depends on it.