Don’t rehabilitate Obama on Russia

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (NORTHERN IRELAND - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E96I0ARP01
Editor's note:

We should not slip into collective amnesia over the Obama administration’s weak and underwhelming response to Russian aggression, argue Benjamin Haddad and Alina Polyakova. This piece originally appeared in The American Interest.

Last week, President Trump, pushing back against persistent accusations of collusion, ignited yet another controversy on Twitter by claiming he had been “much tougher on Russia” than President Obama. The White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on those comments by saying that President Trump “has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined.” This comment was widely ridiculed in the media; CNN ran one of its cheeky fact-checking chyrons: “He isn’t.”

Not so fast.

Whatever the results of the Mueller investigation, the Special Counsel’s bombshell indictment last week erased any doubts about the reality of Russian interference in the U.S. elections. This attack deserves a strong and decisive response. And beyond that, much still needs to be done to shore up our vulnerabilities ahead of the upcoming midterm elections. American citizens of all political persuasions ought to be concerned that their president, focused on preserving his own electoral legitimacy, has appeared largely complacent in the face of such brazen provocations. The fact that Trump, as candidate and then as president, has consistently heaped praised on Russian President Vladimir Putin is peculiar, to say the least.

Throughout his presidency, Obama consistently underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime.

But not everything is relative; we should not slip into collective amnesia over the Obama administration’s weak and underwhelming response to Russian aggression. Throughout his presidency, Obama consistently underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime. His foreign policy was firmly grounded in the premise that Russia was not a national security threat to the United States. In 2012, Obama disparaged Mitt Romney for exaggerating the Russian threat—“the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama quipped. This breezy attitude prevailed even as Russia annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, intervened in Syria, and hacked the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Obama’s response during these critical moments was cautious at best, and deeply misguided at worst. Even the imposition of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by so much propitiation and restraint elsewhere that it didn’t deter Russia from subsequent aggression, including the risky 2016 influence operation in the United States. Obama, confident that history was on America’s side, for the duration of his time in office underestimated the damaging impact Russia could achieve through asymmetric means.

Obama’s cautious Russia policy is grounded in three conceptual errors: a failure to grasp the true nature of the Russian threat, most clearly visible in his administration’s restrained response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; a “long view” of historical trends which in his view inexorably “bent” toward liberalism; and the perception that formidable domestic political obstacles stood in his way when it came to crafting a response to Putin’s assault on the elections in 2016.

The Obama administration viewed Russia as a declining economy and, at best, a regional player and spoiler. According to a strict “spreadsheet” analysis of the situation, this was not a crazy read. Despite its sprawling geographic reach, Russia’s GDP is roughly that of Spain (about $1.2 trillion); it contributes less than 1.5 percent to global GDP, compared to the U.S.’ 25 percent. Without a jump in oil prices to shore up its petrostate model, Russia’s economic outlook looks grim. Furthermore, Russia’s population is literally disappearing: the country is facing major demographic challenges due to declining birth rates, low life expectancy (especially for men), and emigration. And while Russia is still a nuclear superpower, its military is no match for the United States and NATO. For all these reasons, the Obama administration concluded that, despite divergent views on international order, Moscow could still be a potential (junior) partner on areas of mutual interest. This set of beliefs proved incredibly sticky despite Russian actions that should have set off alarm bells.

Obama’s much-ballyhooed “Reset” with Russia, launched in 2009, was in keeping with optimistic attempts by every post-Cold War American administration to improve relations with Moscow out of the gate. Seizing on the supposed change of leadership in Russia, with Dmitry Medvedev temporarily taking over the presidency from Vladimir Putin, Obama’s team quickly turned a blind eye to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, which in retrospect was Putin’s opening move in destabilizing the European order. Like George W. Bush before him, Obama vastly overestimated the extent to which a personal relationship with a Russian leader could affect the bilateral relationship. U.S.-Russia disagreements were not the result of misunderstandings, but rather the product of long-festering grievances. Russia saw itself as a great power that deserved equal standing with the U.S. What Obama saw as gestures of good will—such as the 2009 decision to scrap missile defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic—Russia interpreted as a U.S. retreat from the European continent. Moscow pocketed the concessions and increasingly inserted itself in European affairs. The Kremlin was both exploiting an easy opportunity and reasserting what it thought was its historic prerogative.

Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was the final nail in the coffin of the Reset, President Obama remained reluctant to view Moscow as anything more than a local spoiler, and thought the whole mess was best handled by Europeans. France and Germany spearheaded the Minsk ceasefire process in 2014-2015, with U.S. support but without Washington at the table. The Obama administration did coordinate a far-ranging sanctions policy with the European Union—an important diplomatic achievement, to be sure. But to date, the sanctions have only had a middling effect on the Russian economy as a whole (oil and gas prices have hurt much more). And given that sanctions cut both ways—potential value is destroyed on both sides when economic activity is systematically prohibited—most of the sacrifice was (and continues to be) born by European economies, which have longstanding ties to Russia. In contrast, the costs of a robust sanctions policy have been comparatively minor in the United States; Obama spent little political capital to push them through at home.

A soldier stands guard near a tank position close to the Russian border near the Ukranian city of Kharkiv March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Dmitry Neymyrok (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - GM1EA3P010O01
A soldier stands guard near a tank position close to the Russian border near the Ukranian city of Kharkiv March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Dmitry Neymyrok.

The Obama administration also sought to shore up NATO’s eastern flank through the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which stationed rotating troops in Poland and the Baltics while increasing the budget for U.S. support. Nevertheless, the president resisted calls from Congress, foreign policy experts, and his own cabinet to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine that would have raised the costs on Russia and helped Kyiv defend itself against Russian military incursion into the Donbas. As Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, he viewed any deterrent moves by the United States as fundamentally not credible, because Russia’s interests clearly trumped our own; it was clear to him they would go to war much more readily that the United States ever would, and thus they had escalatory dominance. Doing more simply made no sense to Obama.

This timid realpolitik was mixed up with a healthy dose of disdain. Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power” that was acting out of weakness in Ukraine. “The fact that Russia felt it had to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” Obama said at the G7 meeting in 2014. This line has not aged well. Obama’s attitudes on Russia reflected his administration’s broadly teleological, progressive outlook on history. Russia’s territorial conquest “belonged in the 19th century.” The advance of globalization, technological innovation, and trade rendered such aggression both self-defeating and anachronistic. The biggest mistake for America would be to overreact to such petty, parochial challenges. The 2015 National Security Strategy favored “strategic patience”. But was it patience… or passivity? As its actions in 2016 proved, Russia is very much a 21st century power that understands how to avail itself of the modern tools available to it, often much better than we do ourselves.

The same intellectual tendencies that shaped Obama’s timid approach to Ukraine were reflected in his administration’s restrained response as evidence of Russian electoral interference began to emerge in the summer of 2016. Starting in June, intelligence agencies began reporting that Russian-linked groups hacked into DNC servers, gained access to emails from senior Clinton campaign operatives, and were working in coordination with WikiLeaks and a front site called DCLeaks to strategically release this information throughout the campaign cycle. By August, Obama had received a highly classified file from the CIA detailing Putin’s personal involvement in covert influence operations to discredit the Clinton campaign and disrupt the U.S. presidential elections in favor of her opponent, Donald Trump. That fall through to his departure from the White House, the president and his key advisers struggled to find an appropriate response to the crime of the century. But out of all the possible options, which included a cyber offensive on Russia and ratcheted up sanctions, the policy that was adopted in the final months of Obama’s term was, characteristically, cautious. Obama approved additional narrow sanctions against Russian targets, expelled 35 Russian diplomats, and shut down two Russian government compounds.

It’s true that Obama faced a difficult political environment that constrained his ability to take tougher measures. Republican opponents would have surely decried any loud protests as a form of election meddling on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. Donald Trump was already flogging the narrative that the elections were rigged against him. And anyway, Clinton seemed destined to win; she would tend to the Russians in her own time, the thinking went.

But just as with the decision to not provide weapons to Ukraine, the Obama administration also fretted about provoking Russia into taking even more drastic steps, such as hacking the voting systems or a cyber attack on critical infrastructure. In the end, the administration’s worries proved to be paralyzing. “I feel like we sort of choked,” one Obama administration official told the Washington Post.

Much ink has been spilled over President Trump’s effusive praise for Putin and his brutal regime. “You think our country’s so innocent?” candidate Trump famously replied to an interviewer listing the many human rights abuses of Putin’s Russia, including the harassment and murder of journalists. Obama, on the other hand, never had any ideological or psychological sympathy for Putin or Putinism. By the end of his second term, the two men were barely on speaking terms, the iciness of their encounters in full public view. For most of Obama’s two terms, however, this personal animosity did not translate into tougher policies.

For most of Obama’s two terms…this personal animosity did not translate into tougher policies.

Has the Trump administration been tougher on Russia than Obama, as the president claims? Trump’s own boasting feels like a stretch, especially given how he seems to have gone out of his way to both disparage NATO and praise Putin during the course of his first year in office. Still, many of his administration’s good policies have been obscured by the politics of the Mueller investigation and the incessant furor kicked up by the president’s tweets. As Tom Wright has noted, the Trump administration seems to pursue two policy tracks at the same time: the narrow nationalism of the president’s inflammatory rhetoric openly clashing with the seriousness of his administration’s official policy decisions.

These tensions are real, but all too often they become the story. Glossed over is the fact that President Trump has appointed a string of competent and widely respected figures to manage Russia policy—from National Security Council Senior Director Fiona Hill to Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs Wess Mitchell to the Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker. The Trump administration is, in fact, pursuing concrete policies pushing back on Russian aggression that the Obama administration had fervently opposed. The National Security Strategy of 2017, bringing a much-needed dose of realism to a conversation too often dominated by abstractions like the “liberal world order”, singles out both China and Russia as key geopolitical rivals. During Trump’s first year, the administration approved the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine, shut down Russia’s consulate in San Francisco as well as two additional diplomatic annexes, and rather than rolling back sanctions, Trump signed into law additional sanctions on Russia, expanded LNG sales to a Europe dependent in Russian gas imports, and increased the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative budget by 40 percent. (A president who berated U.S. investments for European defense has actually dramatically increased American military presence on Europe’s threatened borders.) While many of these policies may have been implemented despite rather than because of the president—on the expansion of sanctions in particular, Trump faced a veto-proof majority in Congress—credit should be given where credit is due.

The Trump administration’s sober policy decisions should not excuse the president’s praise for Vladimir Putin, nor his reckless undermining of America’s stated commitment to enforcing Article 5 during his first speech in front of NATO. But the fact remains that the U.S. is taking concrete steps to strengthen Europe against Russian aggression. And let’s not be coy about it: if the president’s strident complaining about unequal burden-sharing in NATO finally snaps European allies out of their complacency and helps spur military investment on the continent, this won’t be good news for Russia either. Indeed, he will have succeeded in moving the needle on an issue that has frustrated every one of his predecessors since 1989. Has Trump’s bluster, especially on Article 5, been cost-free? Hardly. Nevertheless, talking to diplomats around town suggests that after initial months of uneasiness, most Europeans have learned to deal with the Trump administration in a dispassionate and pragmatic manner that stands in stark relief with much of the hysteria that passes for commentary in the U.S.

Each administration should be judged on what it has achieved. At the end of the Obama’s two terms, Putin had elevated Russia to a credible revisionist power on the international stage. Russia annexed Crimea and occupied much of Eastern Ukraine; by successfully propping up the degenerate Assad regime, the Kremlin gained a veto on any possible political solution to Syria, and got a meaningful foothold in the broader region for the first time since Sadat threw Soviet advisors out; and its populist allies and fellow-travelers were on the rise in Europe, fueling both anti-Americanism and illiberalism; and most damning of all, it managed to meddle, almost unopposed, in U.S. politics—all on Obama’s watch.

There is plenty left to criticize in how the Trump administration has done things in its first year. The Trump administration’s apparent unwillingness to take steps to deter hostile foreign powers from meddling in American politics is inexcusably irresponsible. And in the Middle East, the Trump administration seems hell-bent on following Obama’s myopic policy of retreat and narrow preoccupation with fighting ISIS to the exclusion of all else. But despite the president’s campaign promises, his administration has been the first in the post-Cold War era to not try for a “Reset” with Moscow. If Vladimir Putin wanted to sow chaos and confusion in Washington, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. If he wanted a pliant ally in America, he has abjectly failed.