- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Or: Why Russia’s President Thought He Could Get Away With It
Few would have predicted even a month ago that Ukraine would escalate from a regional challenge into one of the most significant tests of the Obama presidency. As events unfold and the Obama administration begins to marshal its response, it is worth taking up the prior question: why did Putin decide he could get away with this aggression in the first place? Some other Shadow Government contributors have already started to address this. My former NSC colleague Mike Singh rightly highlights what appears to be the administration’s failure of contingency planning, and below Paul Bonicelli thoughtfully explores the ideological presuppositions behind President Obama’s worldview.
Lest this lapse into Monday-morning quarterbacking, I hope that looking at past mistakes will help the White House recalibrate its Russia policy going forward. And while the administration has made abundant mistakes, it bears repeating that Putin bears the full moral responsibility (read: guilt) for Russia’s aggression. Those of us frustrated over Obama’s foreign policy should guard against falling into a "blame America" posture. Nor should we single out American mistakes; the EU has made its share of colossal blunders on Ukraine, as Jan Techau persuasively describes here.
But the fact remains that over the last five years the Obama administration has made a series of mistakes and misjudgments that in the aggregate helped facilitate Putin’s strategic assessment that he could attack Ukraine with impunity. These included:
- Framing the "reset" in a way that implied the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations had been America’s fault. The implicit premise of the "re-set" was that the United States under the Bush administration had mishandled the Russia relationship, and now under Obama was going to try a new approach. In fact, Putin was the primary cause of the deterioration. While the Bush administration had spent years trying to build a constructive relationship with Russia, it was Putin’s actions — such as cyberattacks on Estonia, energy blackmail of Ukraine, repression of political dissent, support for Iran, and especially the 2008 invasion of Georgia — that primarily caused the downturn.
- Placing a losing bet on Medvedev. During Dmitri Medvedev’s forgettable four years as the Russian president, the Obama administration invested considerable diplomatic capital and presidential time in building a relationship with Medvedev and trying to bolster his standing as the main authority in Russia. All the while, Putin lurked behind the presidency in his prime ministerial role and wielded the real power. The administration’s bet on Medvedev represents dashed hopes and squandered resources, and a missed opportunity to deal more strongly with Putin at the time.
- Bringing a 1970s remedy to a 21st century challenge. In a 2012 presidential campaign debate, President Obama derided Gov. Mitt Romney’s criticisms of Russia with the snide line that "the 1980s are calling and they want their foreign policy back." Which is ironic, given that the Obama administration brought a 1970s approach to its own Russia policy. The aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship that the White House devoted the most time and attention to during Obama’s first term was negotiating the New START treaty. Reasonable people can disagree over whether in arms reduction terms the U.S. or Russia benefited more, but the more enduring story is that, unlike the 1970s, arms control is a secondary issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship today. The nuclear stocks of both nations are a small fraction of their heights in the Cold War. The inordinate diplomatic capital the Obama administration spent on that treaty could have been better spent on other more salient issues, such as Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, human rights and democracy, economic reforms, energy policy, terrorism, and Russia’s troubled relationships with its border states, just to name a few.
- Talking big and doing little on Syria. This has been pointed out abundantly elsewhere but bears repeating in this context. Obama’s empty threats, that Assad "must go," that chemical weapons use is a "red line," along with the farcical Geneva process, have sent a clear message to Putin: America under Obama will not back up its words. Obama compounded this erosion of credibility when he handed Putin the initiative on Syria with the (now failing) chemical weapons deal.
- Asking for more "flexibility." This remains one of the signature moments in Obama’s Russia policy, and when it became public it became even more damaging, as it gave the impression to much of the world that Putin held the upper hand over Obama.
- Bringing the "Candy Land" board to a game of "Risk." If geopolitics were board games, this is the cardinal fault of the Obama administration: being unrealistic about power politics. (There are many metaphors being tossed around to contrast the different approaches of Putin and Obama — e.g. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers’s line that "Putin is playing chess, and … we are playing marbles"). Of all of the ongoing efforts to understand Obama administration foreign policy, the most implausible are those that call President Obama a "realist." Fred Kaplan is the latest to fall for this line, though in his telling it just seems to mean that Obama doesn’t want the United States very involved in the world. Yet realism at its core is not about nonintervention; it is about power politics and national interests. The uber-realist Putin understands this, which is why he is playing a ruthless game of power projection in a zero-sum world. Above all else, the White House needs to understand Putin’s approach, and reframe its strategy accordingly.