Obama and Russia: A Partnership Thrown Away

Interview with The Atlantic exposes Obama's arrogant contempt for Russia and its President and shows the way this has led to the catastrophic failure of his whole foreign policy. 

Thu, Mar 31, 2016
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Obama’s interview with The Atlantic continues to attract attention.

No one however seems to notice the glaring gap in Obama’s account of his foreign policy.

This is that he has almost nothing to say about the US’s relations with China and Russia.

This is actually bizarre given the importance of these two states.

China is now the world’s biggest industrial power and may (in purchasing power parity terms) already have an economy bigger than that of the US.  

If its economy is not bigger than that of the US it soon will be.

China is also the Asian colossus which is increasingly challenging the US’s hitherto dominant position in the Pacific.

Though in his interviews with the The Atlantic Obama avoids saying so, a prime reason for the US’s pivot to Asia is to meet the challenge from China.

Russia is Europe’s biggest country.  It is also by far the most powerful European state and will before long be its richest if it is not so already.

Europe is the continent where the US’s key NATO allies are located.  Their relationship with Russia is for them a matter of existential importance and so it should be also for the US.

Russia is also the world’s largest energy producer, the world’s largest country and - by Obama’s own admission - after the US the world’s strongest military power.  

As recent events have shown it is a force to be reckoned with not just in Europe but also in Central Asia and the Middle East.

It is also the one country whose nuclear weapons capability matches that of the US and which - as a result of its space programme - has a worldwide surveillance and intelligence operation that can compare with that of the US.

Preserving peace - which ought to be the first priority of a statesman - in the modern world depends on how well the US manages its relationships with China and Russia.

The story of the Obama Presidency is of a President who has mismanaged both and who doesn’t seem to realise the fact or understand why it matters and who gives the impression that he doesn't really care.

In this article I shall concentrate on the US’s relations with Russia and what Obama tells us about them.  I am not a China expert and I will leave discussion of the US’s relationship with China to someone who is.

Obama began his Presidency with the so-called “Reset” - a policy that looked like an attempt to rebuild relations with Russia after the massive damage they had suffered during the George W. Bush Presidency.

As part of the Reset Obama appeared to backpedal on Bush’s policy of drawing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, gave the strong impression he would scrap Bush’s plan to site anti-ballistic missiles in eastern Europe, negotiated further cuts in US and Russian nuclear arsenals (the so-called “New Start” Treaty), achieved the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and arranged the grant to Russia of Most Favoured Nation trade status, and agreed to Russia joining the World Trade Organisation.

Consistent with the seeming effort to achieve a Reset in relations with Russia, the personal relationship between Obama and Russia's leaders - Dmitry Medvedev - who was Russia’s President during Obama’s first term - and Putin - for a time appeared to be good.

During his first term Obama repeatedly gave the impression that he regarded the Reset as the centre-piece of his foreign policy, and he  touted it as his great foreign policy success.

Amazingly in his interviews with The Atlantic Obama has absolutely nothing to say about it.  He doesn’t even refer to it or say why it went wrong.

As to why it went wrong, the clue is provided not in what Obama says about the Reset - which is nothing - but in what he says about Russia and about Putin.  

Quite simply he doesn’t take either very seriously.  Here is what he has to say about Russia:

“Unlike China, they have demographic problems, economic structural problems, that would require not only vision but a generation to overcome.

The path that Putin is taking is not going to help them overcome those challenges. 

But in that environment, the temptation to project military force to show greatness is strong, and that’s what Putin’s inclination is. So I don’t underestimate the dangers there.”

And here is what he has to say about Putin:

“The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks. 

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He’s constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. 

He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. 

You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”

The ignorance and condescension in these remarks is very revealing. 

That they express Obama’s actual views is not in doubt.   Obama has said essentially identical things repeatedly and there is no doubt these comments reflect what he privately believes - which is that in the great scheme of things Russia just doesn’t matter any more and doesn’t merit his time and attention to any great degree.  

For example Obama has talked of Russia “not making anything” and of being “a regional power” as opposed to being - like the US - a global power.

The last point is actually true.  However it disregards the critical importance to the US of the regions - Europe, the Middle East, the Arctic and Central Asia - where Russia is a “regional power”.

One senses in these comments someone whose knowledge of Russia is stuck in the 1990s - when Russia really was in a demographic crisis and did come very close to not making anything - and who is fundamentally uninterested in finding out more because - as is all too obvious from Obama’s other comments to The Atlantic - Russia in the end bores him.

That this is so is shown by what Obama has to say about Putin.

If - as Obama admits - Putin is “constantly interested in working with us” it is not because he genuinely seeks solutions to problems of mutual interest.  It is because - in Obama’s view - “he is not completely stupid” (!) “understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished” and “is constantly interested in being seen as our peer” - ie. wants to pretend that Russia is more important than it really is.

This is a strange vision of Russian policy.  It assumes that if the Russians act decisively in places like Ukraine or Syria it is not because they are defending their vital interests there.  It is because they want to be the centre of attention.

One senses here Obama’s irritation that Russia simply won’t go away and leave him alone so that he can concentrate on those things that he considers really important - as if relations with one of the world's leading powers were not important enough!  Obama’s indifference to Russia and his inability to take it seriously and his failure to grasp the importance of its place in the world is most starkly shown by what he says about Russia’s role in G20 meetings.

Supposedly the Russians don’t “help to shape the agenda” so that “there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”

Obama says this just a few weeks after the G20 summit in Antaliya where Russia’s intervention in Syria completely dominated discussions and where Putin’s revelations about the Islamic State’s illegal oil trade with Turkey finally shamed the US and the other Western powers into taking action to stop it.

No doubt Obama would reconcile this by saying that the issue that dominated the discussions at Antaliya - the fight against jihadi terrorism - is not one of “the issues that are important”. 

Indeed - as is all too obvious from his comments to The Atlantic - his interests lie elsewhere.  He is even recorded as saying there - to the dismay and bafflement of some US commentators - that the dangers from jihadi terrorism are being over-stated.  His problem is that there are very few people in the world - including in the US - who agree with him.

Given that Obama considers Russia so unimportant why did he bother with the Reset at all?

It is impossible to avoid the feeling that for Obama the Reset was simply a way of putting relations with Russia on ice - where he feels they belong - so that the US can concentrate on those things he believes really matter: the US’s pivot to Asia and its opening to the global South.

By way of example, compare the bored and patronising comments Obama makes about Russia with the enthusiastic way he talks about the people of South East Asia:

“…..Southeast Asia…..still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure.”

Never at any point in his Presidency - and certainly not in his comments to The Atlantic - has Obama ever spoken of Russians like that.

Other regions like Africa and Latin America also seem to excite Obama far more than Russia does.  

He bewails the indifference of the US to these regions and congratulates himself on improving the US’s position in Latin America even as the US’s relations with Russia and its whole position in the Middle East fall apart.

Obama is not wrong to seek to improve the US’s relations with regions like South East Asia or Africa or Latin America.  

The trouble is this comes with little understanding that the US simply doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which countries and regions in the world matter to it and which don't.  

Improving relations with Vietnam or Cuba and shaking hands with Raul Castro and the leaders of Vietnam’s Communist Party is all very well.  It cannot make up for the fact that US relations with Russia, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - all far more important and powerful countries than Vietnam or Cuba - are going from bad to worse. 

It is impossible to avoid here the sense of a President who for all his undoubted intelligence has never quite managed to put the Chicago community organiser behind him. 

Regardless, if Obama really wanted to refocus US relations towards Asia and the global South - by no means a wrong or unworthy aim - then he should have realised that what this required first and foremost was a real and lasting settlement in Europe and the Middle East which would inevitably have to involve Russia.

Achieving that would have required unremitting attention and hard work.  It would also have involved making serious efforts to address the very real concerns the Russians have in both the Middle East and Europe.

It would also have meant explaining clearly to the American people what the President was doing in order to mobilise their support to face down the inevitable opposition of the neocons and of a part of the foreign policy establishment.

That this would have been by no means impossible is shown by the success Donald Trump is having in the US Presidential election campaign by saying publicly many of the same things it turns out Obama thinks in private but has up to now lacked the courage to say.

Only once a durable settlement with Russia had been achieved in Europe, and at least a partial settlement also involving Russia had been achieved in the Middle East, would it have been possible for Obama and the US to have afforded themselves the luxury of refocusing their undivided energies elsewhere.

It might realistically have needed more than one Presidency, though with goodwill who knows what might have been achieved? However sowing a good harvest which has to be left to be reaped by one's successor is the price a statesman sometimes has to pay. 

What happened instead was a series of ill-thought out half-measures that immediately unravelled as soon as Obama turned away - which it is clear he was in all too much of a hurry to do.  With Obama fundamentally uninterested in relations with Russia control of Russian policy quickly slipped back into the hands of the Old Guard of Russophobes, liberal interventionists and neocons - people like Hillary Clinton, Victoria Nuland and Michael McFaul - and of their fellow travellers in Europe - people like Radek Sikorsky and Carl Bildt.

The results are there for all to see:

Instead of removing anti-ballistic missiles from Eastern Europe plans to deploy them continue apace.

The repeal of the Jackson Vanik amendment, the grant to Russia of Most Favoured Nation trade status and Russia's inclusion in the World Trade Organisation have all been rendered meaningless by the Magnitsky Act and the trade sanctions imposed on Russia during the Ukrainian crisis.

The attempts to draw Ukraine into NATO, instead of being abandoned, have been pushed further and faster than anyone imagined, with predictably disastrous consequences.

In the Middle East the liberal interventionists/neocons were left to take control of policy resulting in disasters in Libya and Syria, the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan, and the rise in Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State.

The Reset also quickly degenerated into an attempt to remould Russian politics in a pro-US direction, first by playing Medvedev off against Putin - a hopeless idea which I remember Peter Lavelle warning Obama against in a series Op Eds for RT - and then through a disastrously botched and misguided attempt to prevent Putin from returning to the Presidency, first by warning him against doing so, and then by fomenting demonstrations against him in Moscow.

It was however with the Ukrainian crisis that all the follies caused by Obama’s neglectful approach to foreign policy came together.

Obama shows in some ways a clearer understanding of the Ukrainian conflict than any other Western leader.  Here is how The Atlantic describes Obama’s attitude to Ukraine and to the whole conflict there:

“Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.

“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said.

I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.

“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.””

In this perception - that Russia cares about Ukraine in a way the US does not and that Russia will therefore always in the end be in a position of advantage (“escalatory dominance”) over the US there - Obama is absolutely right.  

Neither Merkel nor Hollande nor any other European leader has ever put it so clearly or is probably able to.

Given that this is so it is however extraordinary - and completely unexplained - why in that case Obama let the US drift into a confrontation with Russia in Ukraine at all.

Foreign policy - especially the foreign policy of a nation like the US - is rather like driving a car.  It means reading the road ahead to spot the obstacles and drive around them.  

Ukraine was an all-too visible obstacle and yet Obama crashed right into it.

The full story has not been told and Obama - who is obviously aware of the extent of the debacle - is careful not to tell it.

It is difficult however to escape the feeling that basically what happened was that Obama took his eye off the road because relations with Russia and Ukraine ultimately didn’t interest him so that his attention was elsewhere.

The result was that he delegated management of the US’s Ukrainian policy to his underlings: to Vice President Biden - who because of his son’s business interests in Ukraine has what ought to have been an obvious conflict of interest - to the US’s local neocons - Victoria Nuland and the US’s ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt - and to the spooks in the CIA and in the various NGOs the CIA runs - who cannot see the chance of a coup without going for it.

The result was that Sikorski and Bildt - Europe’s two neocon foreign ministers and the authors of its Ukrainian policy - instead of being warned to keep away from Ukraine - a country where because of its internal divisions and Russia’s overriding interests it was essential to tread carefully - found themselves instead positively encouraged to wreak their mayhem there - with the disastrous consequences we now see.

The result is that instead of no longer having to worry about Russia - as Obama wanted - the US finds itself locked in a confrontation with Russia in both Ukraine and Syria - and losing against Russia in both places.

Worse still from Obama’s point of view, instead of being freed from its European entanglements to concentrate on its relations with Asia and the global South, the US is being drawn back to Europe because of the confrontation it now finds itself in there with Russia.

It is difficult to avoid the feeling of a great missed opportunity.

Far from the Russians wanting to be the centre of attention so that they can pretend they are the US’s equals - as Obama preposterously appears to think - the reality is that the Russians at this point in their history are overwhelmingly focused on their own affairs.

As Patrick Armstrong - that most insightful and experienced of Russia watchers - has put it, Russia is a country which for the moment wants to be left alone.  Its outlook is essentially the same as the one once expressed by Prince Gorchakov: La Russie ne boude pas; elle se recueille (‘Russia is not sulking, she is composing herself’).

That ought to have provided Obama with the perfect basis upon which to achieve the lasting understanding with Russia that his larger aims require.

The Iranian nuclear deal, Syria’s surrender of its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013, and the truce now in effect in Syria - all achieved because of Russian help and all achievable years before if the will to work constructively with the Russians had been there - all show what might have been achieved if Obama had been prepared to work with the Russians and had been prepared to take them seriously.

Instead - out of complacency and arrogance - Obama has drifted into fights with the Russians over causes - Ukraine and Syria - he says he doesn’t believe in, and which his interview with The Atlantic shows he knows the US is going to lose.

It is a bizarre legacy from someone who had the intellectual gifts and the insight to be a truly transformative President, and one which - as his interview with The Atlantic all too obviously shows - he realises is going to define the way he will be remembered in the future. 

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