Returning as president after a stint as prime minister, Vladimir Putin enters Andreyevsky Hall at the Great Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2012 for his inauguration ceremony. (Photo by ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/GettyImages)
An even steeper decline in U.S.-Russia relations was still to come in 2011. After Russia’s parliamentary elections in December, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow and other cities alleging voter fraud. The protests grabbed international headlines and earned encouraging comments by then-Secretary of State Clinton. In the Kremlin, conspiracies ran rampant that Washington was behind the demonstrations. The protests were quickly put down and their leaders sidelined. And when Putin returned as president the following year, the Kremlin’s messaging and policies became newly populist and anti-American.
What followed next was a sharp deterioration in already strained U.S.-Russia relations. The U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in December 2012, imposing targeted sanctions on various Russian government officials who, according to the State Department, were guilty of human rights violations. In response, Moscow issued a ban on U.S. citizens adopting Russian children. Relations were further sidelined in June 2013 when National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden boarded a flight in Hong Kong bound for Moscow. The episode ended with Putin granting asylum to Snowden and the Obama administration canceling a state visit to Moscow scheduled before the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg that year.
Whether or not the failed visit would have rescued Obama and Putin’s relationship and U.S.-Russian relations remains unclear. On the eve of the G-20 summit, differences over Syria between the two countries boiled over, with Putin describing U.S. allegations that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against rebel fighters as nonsense before calling Secretary of State John Kerry a liar. On the sidelines of the summit, the Americans later made it clear to the other participants that Putin was not a team player. He was so unconstructive that Washington had given up on him. The United States was ready to wash its hands of Putin.
Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
But Putin believed the opposite — that the West was out to get him and to enfeeble Russia. The 2014 Sochi Olympics were meant to be a celebration of Russia’s international stature, but the Kremlin was consumed with the ongoing protests in Ukraine against its fickle client, President Viktor Yanukovych. Still in constant communication with the Ukrainian president, Putin was convinced that what was happening in Kiev was the result of a U.S.-led operation. Back in December 2013, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Sen. John McCain had visited Ukraine. Nuland handed out biscuits and sandwiches on Independence Square to both the protesters and the police while McCain spoke from a makeshift stage. After several dramatic and bloody clashes between police and protesters, Yanukovych eventually fled on Feb. 22, 2014.
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Putin was furious that Yanukovych had left so easily and that the Americans seemed to have helped in regime change next door. But the Russian president had other moves to make. The next day, pro-Russian demonstrations began in Crimea, and soon after masked Russian soldiers without insignia appeared and helped capture important buildings. A referendum on Crimean independence was announced on Feb. 27, and the next day a bill was introduced in the Russian parliament to facilitate the accession of new territories to the Russian Federation.
On March 4, Putin held a press conference at which he said Russia was not planning to annex Crimea, but the decision to annex the region had in fact already been made. Despite being under intense pressure from Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin decided that he could not give way. In any case, he didn’t think the West would impose serious sanctions, believing that the maximum punishment would be a boycott of the upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi. Putin was ready to sacrifice the summit for the sake of Crimea and was sure that the West would not dare to go any further — and if it did, then not for very long. After the war in Georgia, Russia had also been threatened with isolation, but everything had soon been forgotten.
Crimea joined Russia on March 16. According to official figures, 96.77 percent of those voting were in favor. On March 18, at a ceremony in the Kremlin, Putin signed an agreement on the accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation. The decision culminated on May 9, 2014, which was Victory Day. Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Sevastopol for a triumphant victory parade. The city was buzzing with chants of “Russia, Russia!” It did indeed feel like a victory.
But unlike Georgia, the responses to Crimea and the ensuing war in eastern Ukraine were much more severe. The United States and the EU issued biting sectorial sanctions against Russia and Putin’s inner circle. Internationally, Putin was now labeled a pariah. At the G-20 summit in Brisbane on Nov. 15-16, 2014, Western leaders took turns talking tough about Putin to journalists, and the Russian president found himself on the periphery of the photo op with other world leaders.
Putin was humiliated by the Australian reception and left early. But it marked the start of a new stage of Russian foreign policy. Used to being lauded abroad, Putin was now less keen to travel for fear of being treated like an outcast. Other Russian state officials, even liberal ones, followed his example, and soon contact with Western audiences was reduced to the absolute minimum. The unpleasant feeling of international isolation continued to worsen for the Kremlin.
The signing of the Iran nuclear deal between major powers took place in Vienna in May 2015 and put an end to Tehran’s economic and political isolation. Much of the world rejoiced, except for Russia. The Kremlin had an ominous feeling that this was the last negotiation process that would involve Russia as a great power. The Kremlin racked its brain. Other than Ukraine, what else would the world be willing to discuss with Moscow? The answer was Syria. On Sept. 30, 2015, Russia intervened militarily under the pretext of fighting terrorism but also to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin may have found itself under increasing economic pressure from low oil prices and sanctions, but Russia’s military foray into the Middle East meant it couldn’t be ignored.
Moscow had felt the full force of isolation from the West. Yet the Kremlin’s response was strange and slightly irrational. It spoke of the common grief that had united the country. Those officials who had hoped that Russia’s isolation would be short-lived began to philosophize about the conditions under which Russia and the West could be reconciled. “You’ll see. There’ll be something more terrible. Something so terrible we can’t even imagine it. Something like a third world war,” a top Russian official said in private. “It will reconcile us with the Americans.”
Nearly eight years after the beginning of the failed reset with the Obama administration, the Kremlin now waited for another opportunity to mend ties with Washington.
Top Image: Pete Garceau/AFP/Getty Images