By John Ubaldi,
The intelligence community released its much-anticipated report that Moscow tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But despite this news, does the U.S. truly understand Russia?
The past three U.S. presidents have dealt with Russian President Vladimir Putin and each president has failed. Now, President-elect Donald Trump will become the fourth president who must cope with Russia’s pugnacious leader, Vladimir Putin.
If history is any guide, Trump could potentially fall victim to the same problem as previous presidents faced. They never could figure Putin out and failed to properly predict what global actions Russia would take to serve its interests.
Clinton, Bush and Obama Failed to Understand and Predict Putin
Clinton, Bush and Obama all began their presidencies with optimistic hopes of dealing with the Russian leader. Former President George W. Bush even stated, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” In other remarks Bush later regretted, he said, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
However, Putin fooled Bush over Russia’s intention in the Georgia conflict and subsequent invasion in August of 2008.
The U.S.-Russia relationship deteriorated also over NATO expansion eastward. The Georgian crisis and the Bush administration’s plans to build a missile defense facility in Eastern Europe caused strain between the U.S. and Russia. President Obama came into office with the intent of improving U.S.-Russian relations.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put together the now famous “reset” policy. It resulted in a new START deal to reduce the stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
But like Bush before him, Obama failed to heed the lesson of history. He supported NATO membership for Ukraine and, like Bush, failed to understand the ties between Ukraine and Russia.
Obama Misread Putin
For whatever reason, the Obama administration misread Russia and failed to exert the leadership needed during the Ukraine crisis. Obama left the heavy burden of leadership to France and Germany, who were incapable of acting in that role. Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy would later prove ineffective when Moscow annexed the Crimea and sent military forces into eastern Ukraine.
President Obama also removed a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe in 2009 in the vain hope that Russia would help the U.S. with Iran. This aid from Russia never materialized.
Far too often, Obama said Putin’s Russia was in a much weaker position in relationship to the United States. Unfortunately, the president did not exploit that disadvantage. Obama’s foreign policy allowed the Russian president to effectively play a weak hand with ruthless abandon, all with little interference from the United States.
Russia Returns to the Middle East
Obama also allowed Russia to enter the Syrian conflict without effective protest or action. Russia is now a viable player in the Middle East. This is a role Russia hasn’t played since the mid-1970s, when it was forced out of the region by the United States as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
With Russia back in the Middle East, the situation in that region has become more complicated. Putin, with the brutal assistance of the Russian military, prevented the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This has made the United States a secondary player in ending the Syrian civil war.
How Will Trump Handle Russia?
How is Trump prepared to deal with Russia during his presidency? In the past, Trump has given vague foreign policy strategy pronouncements without ever going into detail.
On the surface, Trump appears to favor improving U.S.-Russian relations. On Saturday, Trump commented in a series of five tweet messages: “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only “stupid” people or fools would think that it is bad! We…have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am president, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the world.”
Renowned historian Niall Ferguson wrote last month in “Foreign Policy” that “It is not difficult to infer what Putin would like to get in any “great deal” between himself and Trump. Item No. 1 would be a lifting of sanctions. Item No. 2 would be an end to the war in Syria on Russia’s terms — which would include the preservation of Assad in power for at least some “decent interval.” Item No. 3 would be a de facto recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and some constitutional change designed to render the government in Kiev impotent by giving the country’s eastern Donbass region a permanent pro-Russian veto power.”
We will get a taste of how a Trump administration will deal with Russia during the confirmation hearings for both Secretary of Defense-designee Marine Corps General James Mattis (ret.) and Secretary of State-designee Rex Tillerson.
Of the two, Tillerson will be the one to watch more closely. He was CEO of ExxonMobil, which had considerable dealings inside Russia and with Putin himself. While Mattis is more hawkish on Russia, we don’t know where Tillerson stands. His answers will be crucial to understanding how Trump will deal with Putin.
After January 20, Trump will be making the decisions. Will he be one more president who fails to understand Putin’s motives?