Obama, Not Trump, Was Weak on Russia

By | 2017-07-24T21:56:29+00:00 June 23rd, 2017|
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When he first came into office, Barack Obama promised to reset relations with Russia. He vowed to undo the purported damage of the George W. Bush Administration to Russo-American relations by making deals with Moscow over the contested issues of NATO and European Union “double expansion.” Obama wanted to get Russia onboard for nuclear arms reduction talks. He also wanted to create more amicable relations in order to address the supposed threat of global warming.

By 2011, the United States had signed a nuclear arms treaty with Russia that effectively reduced the efficacy of our nuclear arsenal, while allowing for Russia to increase the effectiveness (and size) of its own. Also, Obama fed into Russian aggression by not holding Moscow accountable for its unlawful invasion of Georgia in August 2008. He also indicated that he could accept limitations on NATO and EU expansion.

In short, deference rather than deterrence was the basis of Obama’s foreign policy toward Russia.

The Russians could not believe how lucky they were to have such a pliable U.S. president. Russian leadership said the right things about cooperation and friendship, all while steadily improving their ability to threaten Russia’s neighbors. As time progressed, the era of good feelings between America and Russia faded—especially as the United States intervened in the Libyan civil war.

Initially, the Obama Administration promised only to lend humanitarian aid to Libya, but the onset of “mission creep” resulted in the United States taking the lead in toppling Muammar Gaddafi. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama had crossed a red line that Obama could never come back from. Also, Putin held a particular animus for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he claimed had personally promised him the United States would not move to topple Gaddafi’s regime.

Putin is an egoist and is therefore highly sensitive to the power of the image in international relations. In Putin’s mind, he had attempted to play nice with the Obama Administration: he stepped down as president to become prime minister and allowed for his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, to take over. He had “generously” signed the nuclear arms deal with the Obama Administration (even though Russia made out like bandits and America’s strategic arsenal was harmed). Putin even looked the other way; ignoring his years of experience when it came to Western humanitarian intervention and begrudgingly acceding to the Obama Administration’s calls for international support for intervening in Libya. In fact, to Putin and his supporters, he was gracious to the West in not heeding the desperate calls for assistance from his long-time client, Bashar al-Assad, whose regime was rapidly losing control of Syria. The image became that Russia was being pushed around by America.

The final straw for Putin was the 2011-12 protests that swept across Russia when Putin announced that he was returning to the presidency. Putin blamed the United States—particularly Hillary Clinton and her chosen ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, for inciting the riots. Of course, this was likely not the case. But again, Putin is convinced of his own popularity among the Russian people and could not countenance that his clearly undemocratic return to power would have been naturally opposed by a vast number of Russians. From that point onward, Putin loathed the Obama Administration and Clinton, and sought to make the West pay.

For Putin, his only hope for making Russia a great power was in forging the proposed Moscow-led supranational economic union—the Eurasian Union—that would have spanned from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Building it up first with former Soviet bloc states, such as Belarus, and (Putin assumed) Ukraine, the Kremlin planned on rehabilitating the old Russian Empire for the 21st century.

Alas, that was not to be. Putin’s client, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown in a popular revolt in Ukraine and replaced with a pro-American leadership. The new Ukrainian government opted to move toward membership in the European Union and NATO instead of forging closer ties with Russia. For Putin, always seeing an imperialist American behind every bad event in the former Soviet space, he immediately assumed that the West was plotting against him.

The United States looked on as Russian forces marched in and illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama Administration did little to shore up NATO’s defenses or reassure our finicky European partners in the aftermath of that invasion.

In fact, Putin’s forces doubled down and expanded their operations into the Donbass—even shooting down a civilian airliner. As if that wasn’t enough, the Putin regime, sensing weakness everywhere on America’s part, intervened in the ongoing Syrian civil war on the side of Assad.

Obama did little to rebuff or even signal American opposition to these moves. The Obama Administration did impose economic sanctions on Moscow. Yet in typical Russian fashion, rather than being cowed by such measures, the Russians have been induced toward greater aggression in the military and diplomatic realm. The goal of the Obama Administration should have been conflict mitigation through selective escalation (such as shoring up our deterrence and building up missile defense in the Baltic States). Unfortunately, though, the Obama Administration was haphazard in its response which only encouraged greater Russian adventurism.

While Russia is a purveyor of “fake news” with their state-owned propaganda arms, such as TASS and Russia Today, the hacked information that had been disseminated to WikiLeaks and other sources was factually true. This only did more damage to the Clinton campaign, which had been ailing from its outset.

Meanwhile, as the highly contentious 2016 presidential election got under way, Putin found another avenue of not only undermining America, but also getting back at those in the Democratic Party with whom he believed had tried to overthrow him and to prevent the creation of the Eurasian Union.

Even if Putin didn’t hate Hillary Clinton, it’s likely he would have sought to sow discord within the American electorate. Using his vast cyber warfare capabilities, Putin ordered attacks on computer servers at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee headquarters. The Republican servers were better defended, whereas the Democratic servers were compromised quickly. Thus, it was easy for Putin’s agents to get their hands on damning information (like how the DNC had rigged their primary to favor Hillary Clinton) and spread it like wildfire.

While Russia is a purveyor of “fake news” with their state-owned propaganda arms, such as TASS and Russia Today, the hacked information that had been disseminated to WikiLeaks and other sources was factually true. This only did more damage to the Clinton campaign, which had been ailing from its outset.

Even so, as accusations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian intelligence during the campaign mount, there is no verifiable proof that this ever occurred. What did happen was that the Trump campaign was boosted by the timely Russian leaks of DNC and Clinton campaign emails—but so what? Politics is often impacted by international events.  

Recently, the Washington Post published a story headlined, “Obama’s Secret Struggle to Punish Russia for Putin’s Election Assault.” According to the Post, senior CIA officials met with President Obama last August and warned him that the Russians were aiming to undermine the American election by helping to defeat Clinton and elect Trump. The mainstream media has taken this as proof-positive that Trump’s presidency is illegitimate and that the ceaseless investigations into Trump-Russia collusion accusations should expand. In fact, all that this proves was that the Obama Administration’s continuous soft spot for the Russians came into play again.

Was the revelation that Putin may have ordered a cyber offensive against the American election system in 2016 really that groundbreaking? We’ve known for some time that Russian hackers were running roughshod over the entire election process, particularly on the DNC side. What does this prove? That the Russian command-and-control system for conducting cyber warfare is strong?

Why didn’t Obama order retaliation of some kind? Oh, sure, he apparently ordered our cyber forces to plant electronic bombs in critical Russian systems, ready for detonation in the event of war. But in what way is that akin to the kind of attack—and fallout—that the Russians have caused over here?

Like the sanctions imposed on Russia following their unlawful annexation of Crimea, in what way would the placement of electronic bombs in critical Russian systems really prevent Russia from acting aggressively? If anything, given Russian behavior recently, it might just encourage them to act more aggressively; to double down while they still think the West is weak and they could potentially run the table on America.

Was the revelation that Putin may have ordered a cyber offensive against the American election system in 2016 really that groundbreaking? We’ve known for some time that Russian hackers were running roughshod over the entire election process, particularly on the DNC side. What does this prove? That the Russian command-and-control system for conducting cyber warfare is strong? Don’t all political leaders have to order their armed forces to launch any kind of attack against another state? And, in what way does this prove the Left’s other claims that Trump’s campaign staff colluded with the Russians to bring down the Clinton Campaign? How? And, even if they did, what law did they violate?

Fact is, today we’re dealing with this “scandal,” because Obama’s posture toward Russia was weak and submissive. From the start, Obama (and Clinton) had a poor understanding of who Putin was and what Russia means to our foreign policy. Obama had a minimum of four months to respond to Putin, thereby saving Hillary’s candidacy (potentially). Yet, he delayed and deferred his response to the next administration (as with so much else).

Face it: Barack Obama’s continual weakness and thoughtlessness in the face of increasing Russian aggression created the current strategic environment that we’re all suffering through today. I’ve never been happier knowing that Donald Trump defeated Clinton in 2016. Under Trump, we will be dealing with Russia from a position of strength, as opposed to weakness.  

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About the Author:

Brandon J. Weichert
Brandon J. Weichert is a contributing editor to American Greatness. A former Republican congressional staffer and national security expert, he also runs "The Weichert Report" (www.theweichertreport.com), an online journal of geopolitics. He holds master's degree in statecraft and national security from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is also an associate member of New College at Oxford University and holds a B.A. in political science from DePaul University. He is currently completing a book on national security space policy due out next year.