Russian President Vladimir Putin is tactically shrewd and more experienced than US President Barack Obama as a leader. Such realities cannot be ignored or rationalized as being unimportant. Putin likely recognizes the benign, forgiving side of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs. It could provide him with the opportunity to do much more to restore Russia’s power and influence.
According to an August 16, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way,” the debate in Washington on foreign policy boils down to two opposite positions: It is all US President Barack Obama’s fault, according to his critics; no, it is not, according to his supporters, because these are events beyond his control. US citizens, the article explains, often think of their president as an all-powerful figure who can command the tides of history—and presidents have encouraged this image over the years because the perception itself can be a form of power. However, Obama, himself, has increasingly argued that his power to shape these seismic forces is actually limited. He is quoted in the article as stating, “Apparently people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”
Obama’s adversaries and supporters have viewed that statement as rationalization. He seems to be excusing his own actions, or inactions, as the case may be. Polling data provided in the article seems to indicate that Obama’s policy of restraint matches the public mood. Polls indicate the US public finds little appetite for robust intervention in Syria, Ukraine, or Iraq. Nonetheless, having gazed at the results of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, 58 percent of those polled disapproved of his efforts. There is also real disappointment with Obama’s leadership within foreign capitals. Perceptions of friends and opponents among foreign leaders of Obama’s foreign policy performance has shaped their decisions on how to proceed for the remainder of his term in office. Particularly concerning opponents, the US soon face threats has not really seen since the end of the Cold War. Understanding how Obama’s actions and inactions on foreign policy, albeit unwittingly, may have blazed a trail to a more dangerous future for the US, could assist in making decisions on how to handle challenges during the remaining years of Obama’s presidency, specifically those concerning Russia.
Obama and the Policy of Forgiveness
Speaking with equanimity and certitude during the 2008 US Presidential Campaign, Obama indicated that as president, he would be able to achieve much by taking a course different than his predecessors. To ensure outcomes in support of US interests, force would not be used to support diplomacy. Obama’s approach seemingly introduced his personal philosophy, a type of teleology concerning man’s purpose on earth, and the meaning and importance of life. (Obama’s private thoughts on policy may be influenced by a kind of eschatology, a concept on the end of life, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and humankind.) Using his personal philosophy, Obama has tried to look at the deeper side of every policy issue confronting him. Duc in altum! (Put out into the deep!) Confident in the better side of human nature, Obama has sought to operate under the notion that issues in foreign affairs could actually be resolved at the negotiating table. He prods administration officials and advisers along his way when they were uncertain or against what he had proposed. He asserts moral authority with foreign leaders.
Working within the parameters of Obama’s thinking, administration officials and advisers have not always fully considered challenging foreign policy problems as they truly exist. Euphonious policy speeches from the Obama and administration officials are often laden with rhetorical arguments, using only acceptable language and a selective list of the realities of a situation. Those assessments can still captivate and satisfy some in the US public who have grown weary of warfare as well as US friends and allies overseas hoping for new, constructive approaches that would establish peace and security. However, recently, such efforts at obfuscation have been regularly overcome by the light of the truth.
Obama’s apparent philosophy has greatly impacted the conduct of US foreign policy regarding the use of force. Developing proposals for military action has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been averse to taking military action. That has limited the range of options that they could present to their president. In a situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight; very small in scale and calibrated precisely. They needed to be effective enough to achieve all objectives based on Obama’s concepts. They also had to find the right language to make the option palatable to Obama. That effort typically initiated an engrossing policy debate among White House advisers. This keeps them busy, but does not make them fruitful. It accounts for difficulties officials and advisers had in getting Obama to come to terms with proposals and plans presented on Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, leaving an air of uncertainty on how to proceed. Reluctant to make use of US military despite the fact that it provides real capabilities and possibilities for effective and successful action, Obama more frequently proffers the idea that the US can work with partners in regions in turmoil to establish multilateral responses. Yet, few states in the world still possess real military strength to project significant force within their regions or beyond their own borders.
Pressed with a situation in which few options other than the use of military power would seem the best to take, despite red-lines issued and stern warnings given, the world has also seen the Obama administration do more than just avoid military action. Rather, it has practically forgiven or, given the overwhelming military power of the US, shown mercy toward an offending rouge actor. Some of the most challenging problems for the Obama administration’ foreign policy degraded much further as a result of this tack. After receiving Obama’s forgiveness, or mercy for their trespasses, the offending actors have never given any indications that they would halt their actions or reform in some way having escaped retribution from the US. That has been the case with Syria, North Korea, Russia, and non-state actors such as Hezbollah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. When some nations have trespassed against the US, it would make sense to forgive the action, understanding that the relationship could be put back on course. This was the case, for example, with Israel when it engages in efforts by its intelligence service to penetrate US government organizations. The US has never been happy about efforts by France to collect economic intelligence from US businessmen staying in hotels in on its territory. Germany efforts to gather information from computer networks and databases in the US has raised the administration’s ire. In such cases, the US could demand a change in behavior from those nations that have “lost their way” knowing an effort would be made to avoid such actions in the future.
It Will Be Difficult for Obama to Deter Putin
Obama’s approach, of being forgiving and showing mercy over the actions of rogue actors, has not been missed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has accomplished much in recent months. The military operation in Crimea transpired on the heels of the successful 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi. There was still a sense of renewed national identity, national pride, and patriotism among Russians. As events developed in Kiev, Putin understood that he still had strong cards to play, and he used one, moving into Crimea, to gain an advantage in what is a negative situation for Russia. He seemingly annexed Crimea in return for the loss of a friendly government and Russian influence in Ukraine. In response, the US and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia that were mild, and Putin pressed onward. Since March, Putin has vowed to use military force to protect Russian speaking compatriots across the former Soviet Union. He branded southern and eastern Ukraine “New Russia”, a name the rebels took up as a catch-all for most militia groups. Two provinces have been partly occupied by armed separatist fighters. The rebels are led almost exclusively by Russian citizens and have managed to acquire tanks, missiles, and other heavy weaponry which the Ukrainian government and the West said could only have come from Russia. A military offense from the Ukrainian government has pushed the rebels out of many of their stronghold, leaving them largely besieged in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which the rebels have proclaimed capitals of the two “people’s republics”. NATO is greatly concerned over Russia’s decision to mass 20,000 combat ready troops along Ukraine’s eastern border to include tanks, infantry, artillery, air defense systems, logistics troops, special forces, and aircraft. While threats to impose even greater economic hardships were made, it was not until July 17, 2014, when a Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, ostensibly by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system under the control of the rebels, were the screws tightened sharply. All 298 people onboard were killed. These far broader sanctions target Russia’s energy, financial, and defense sectors. In the end, Obama made the statement that the US has done everything it can to convince Russia to change course in Ukraine. He explained, “Short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do if President Putin and Russia are ignoring what should be done in their long-term interests.” He further stated, “Sometimes people don’t always act rationally.”
Putin has tried to hold his own against Western economic measures. For example, in a sweeping response, Russia has banned all imports of food from the US and all fruit and vegetables from Europe. The measures would hurt farmers in the West for whom Russia is a big market. Russia is the greatest buyer of European fruit and vegetables, accounting for $43 billion worth of food in 2013, and the second greatest importer of US poultry, accounting for 8 percent of chicken exports. Such anti-Western action plays well with the Russian public. Russia has also signed a deal with Iran expected to undermine Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisages wider economic cooperation to include closer ties in the oil and gas sector, construction and rebuilding of generating capacity, development of a power supply network infrastructure, machinery, consumer goods, and agriculture. It lays the foundation for a multi-billion dollar oil agreement between Moscow and Tehran, or the so-called oil-for-goods contract. Russia claims that cooperation between Russia and Tehran did not violate the UN Security Council Resolution.
A Possible Audacious Move by Putin
Putin can accept Obama and his advisers are using sanctions to halt Russia’s activities in Ukraine and push all parties to the negotiating table, but he also may believe it is part of an effort to fulfill a Western goal of weakening Russia and creating disorder. Tough economic sanctions, Russia’s expulsion from the G-8, denial of Russian separatists’ right to independence, and the US condemnation of Russia for the annexation of Crimea very likely play into a siege mentality that exists among many Russian security officials at the highest level. Moreover, these steps may have stirred some sense of humiliation among them. It may appear to Putin that the West simply refuses to respect Russia as a power, even militarily. The possibility exists that Western sanctions against Russia may prove to be extraordinarily challenging for Putin and his advisers. They may sense their country faces a great a peril much as Japanese leaders had felt their country was endangered by the US under similar pressure before December 7, 1941.
If the US threatens further harsher sanctions and pushes the European states to do the same, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps to change the power equation between Russia and the US and its partners, going farther than Obama and other Western leaders might ever imagine. Sensing his back is up against the wall, unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further actions against it by making rather extraordinary threats to use Russian military power as a response. Shrill statements of condemnation and saber rattling would be heard throughout Washington. Yet, threats of force against Russia would have little meaning at that point. Too many speeches and statements on why US military power should be withheld have already been made to create enough doubt over whether the US might respond at all. Putin may judge that Obama would be unwilling to engage in nuclear exchange because it would most certainly result in the evisceration of several million of lives. Giving an order to use nuclear weapons would be completely alien to Obama’s nature. Considering that, along with the Obama’s record and reputation on the use of force, Putin might calculate that if he pushes hard enough, Obama might eventually back away from further tough talk and harsh economic measures. An authentic debate and decision would likely ensue on Ukraine’s true importance to the US. Putin may assess that Obama would most likely want to negotiate some resolution. Make no mistake, Putin has the will to attack with nuclear weapons, but he also has a bargaining spirit. Talks un such a situation might provide Putin with an opportunity to achieve many objectives that are important to him.
Putin and his advisers undoubtedly took great interest when the Obama administration’s decided to make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts have left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment, or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. In 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. Putin was likely shocked upon receiving Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces. He rejected them not out of political expedience but due to concerns over the efficacy of taking such an audacious step. Putin views nuclear weapons as a means to assure Russia’s survival. Reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a level determined by the bean-counting of those forces by US analysts would never have been acceptable to him.However, from that experience Putin could clearly see that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. Such decisions and actions in the past would make it more likely for Putin and his advisers to assess that Obama would unlikely be willing to use nuclear weapons.
As the driving force behind the Soviet Union, and since the end of the Cold War as an independent state, primacy has been given to Russia in US thinking on the defense of US interests worldwide and the establishment of global peace and security. Despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, neither state acted with its weapons. What Russian leaders thought about the US ostensibly deterred them from hostile actions. By maintaining robust conventional military resources and capabilities, as well as an air, land, and sea nuclear triad, US diplomacy could be supported time and again by the credible threat of force. It was understood in Washington that the US must not only look strong but must be strong. During his May 29, 2014 commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama explained, “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.” Again, Obama failed to recognize or accept a situation as it truly existed. It is difficult to see how Obama can reconcile his belief that a strong image worldwide does not matter given the position he is currently in with Putin and Russia.
Has Putin Been Testing the US?
Sensing what he may perceive as Obama’s weakness, Putin seems to be testing the possibility of using grander action. So far, in July and August, Russian strategic nuclear bombers have conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. On several occasions, the incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers prompted the scrambling of US fighter jets. A number of Russian intelligence-gathering jets have also been detected with the bombers.
Russia’s Northern Fleet anti-submarine forces detected and aggressively forced out a US Navy Virginia class submarine out of Russian boundary waters in the Barents Sea. A seaborne anti-submarine group and an Il-38 anti-submarine warfare plane, were sent to the region to search and track it down.
Putin also recently warned that Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. He stated, “We will give joy to our partners with those ideas and their implementation. I mean those (weapons) systems.” He explained that the new nuclear systems have been kept from public eye.
The Way Forward
Using approaches reflective of his philosophy, Obama has been unable to accomplish much with Putin on Ukraine. Obama sees Putin’s myopia as the main obstacle. However, Putin is not standing around and pointing fingers. Rather, he is on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. He wants to create a Russian sphere of influence—political, economic, and security—and dominance. Putin is tactically shrewd, and far more experienced than Obama as a leader. Such realities cannot be ignored or rationalized as being unimportant. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes the US president’s rather benign, forgiving side, and wants to exploit it to the greatest degree possible to achieve his goals for Russia.
Assertive and decisive US action most likely would have achieved many US goals and had a strong educational effect on leaders globally, including Putin. Yet, the Obama administration failed to project authentic US strength. Threats of military action now would have questionable impact. It would be difficult for Obama to convince Putin of his willingness to fight over Ukraine when he was unwilling to fight anywhere else, even after red-lines were crossed and stern warnings were given. Rather than try to confront Putin head to head, including with sanctions, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered a useful suggestion. He believes the only way to counter Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the US to play a strategic long game. That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that his worldview and goals—and his means of achieving them—over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia. The Europeans must consider how they can work in partnership with the US in that effort. While the proposal recognizes the urgency of the situation, it does not demand military action and provides a concept for a strategy that will achieve a specific outcome which requires a long term program to achieve. It seems to fall within the parameters of what Obama might find acceptable. It might be worth trying.