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Why Obama Can't Catch Up with Putin's Increasingly Bold Moves

Blind to the motives that shape the Russian president’s strategy, the White House pursues a futile search for “common ground.”


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an annual meeting with high ranking officers of the Defence Ministry Board on December 11, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an annual meeting with high ranking officers of the Defence Ministry Board on December 11, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.
Response
Dec. 14 2015
About the author

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of, among other works, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life and Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution 1987–1991.


As conscientious chroniclers do, Michael Doran, in his painstaking examination of the Obama administration’s disastrous foreign policy toward Russia, both instructs us and provokes thoughts and questions that may exceed the intended scope of his essay. Specifically, one is drawn to ask: what caused this policy to be so dismal, so strewn with mistakes, so strikingly unable to predict Moscow’s behavior or to catch up with Vladimir Putin’s increasingly bold moves?

Between historical explanations based in theories of conspiracy and those premised on assumptions of incompetence, it’s usually prudent to plump for incompetence; or so we’re told. But a number of those advising President Obama on Russia are personally known to me to be quite competent, so that explanation won’t wash. Doran offers a different explanation, one that focuses on the beliefs of the president. Barack Obama, he writes, is ideologically wedded to a strategic understanding that is at once false, impervious to correction by reality, and unswayable by the counsel of advisers. This may well be so, but the problem may also be deeper and require elaboration.

First, a narrow amendment. Doran suggests that the 2009 “reset” with Russia was motivated by the administration’s desire to bring in Moscow as a constructive partner in confronting and containing the dangers of Sunni radicalism in the Middle East. This may be so, although it’s worth noting that by 2008 al-Qaeda had been defeated in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But there was also another and in my view more compelling reason for launching the reset: namely, President Obama’s dream of a “world without nuclear weapons,” as spelled out in his April 2009 speech in Prague two-and-a-half months after his inauguration.

Even for a president enjoying what was likely the sweetest of all political honeymoons in U.S. history, Obama couldn’t achieve his dream by means of fiat—that is, by means of a unilateral American disarmament. To advance toward his goal, he needed Russia. Hence, evidently, the intense engagement with Moscow in 2009-10 and the many “accommodations” made along the way, including cancellation of the planned deployment of missile interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic. (The former decision was conveyed to Warsaw on September 17, 2009: the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the dawn of World War II.) As soon as the new START treaty was signed in April 2010, the president, in the judgment of trustworthy sources, “lost interest in Russia.”

Even so, his neglect, if such it was, was certainly of a benign kind. Indeed, to an extent unmatched by any other American administration, including Richard Nixon’s at the height of détente, the Obama White House has continued to conduct a running experiment in realist diplomacy with Moscow. It is as if Obama were daily consulting the key precepts of realist doctrine: ignore a regime’s ideology and domestic behavior; do not meddle in its internal affairs; do not “preach” or “reprimand” or “advocate” anything, least of all “democracy”; respect the regime’s “national interests” and stick to negotiating on that basis—and lo!, from out of the test tube will emerge a “responsible” geopolitical “stakeholder.”

The real-world results, in the Middle East and elsewhere, are by now well known, and expertly catalogued by Michael Doran.

 

But why, to return to my first question, did it turn out this way?

For me, the reason appears to lie in the administration’s inability (or, more likely, unwillingness) to assess its adversary’s behavior by the method historically proved useful in accounting for and anticipating the behavior of states: proceeding from the leaders’ core beliefs, to goals, to strategy, to policy, and finally to tactical implementation.

Each of these, in the case of Vladimir Putin, has been hidden in plain view. To start with beliefs:

Russia is never wrong, but is perennially wronged by the West.

Following his favorite philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, the Russian president believes the West’s hostility to Russia to be eternal, prompted by its jealousy of Russia’s size, natural riches, and, most of all, its incorruptible soul and God-given mission to be a light among nations, a/k/a “the Third Rome” (after ancient Rome and the Byzantine empire). Hence, Western plots against Russia are relentless. While truces are possible and often tactically advantageous, genuine peace with the West is very unlikely. (This general narrative is of course familiar enough in modern history, with the enemy being variously identified as “plutocrats,” “Anglo-Saxons,” or, needless to add, Jews. It was the key trope of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and continues to be a favorite of autocrats to this day.)

Next to goals and strategy:

For Russia, the end of the cold war was the equivalent of the Versailles treaty for post-World War I Germany: a crushing defeat and a source of endless humiliation and misery. Indeed, the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”

Thus, the overarching strategic goal of any truly patriotic Russian leader (not idiots or traitors or both, like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin) is to recover and repossess the political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state.

This in a nutshell is the Putin Doctrine, as I dubbed it in a 2008 essay in Foreign Affairs, and the Russian leader proceeded to implement it from Day One of his first presidency in 2000. By the time he left office in 2009 for an interim period of place-holding by Dmitri Medvedev, he had largely put in place the doctrine’s domestic agenda: once again, the state had achieved ownership of or control over national politics, the media—above all, television—the commanding heights of the economy, and the courts.

After Putin’s resumption of the presidency in 2012, he turned to the doctrine’s foreign-policy aspects. Several factors influenced this shift in focus.

First, by this point, and despite tremendous theft and waste, a ten-year, 22-trillion-ruble defense-modernization program, announced by Putin in 2008 and at that time costing the equivalent of $700 billion, had begun to yield results. The number of battle-ready detachments had increased considerably, Soviet-era equipment had been largely phased out, and, crucially, a new generation of strategic nuclear missiles had come online.

Second, Putin sensed a large and widening window of opportunity in a distracted White House preoccupied with its own domestic ideological agenda, uninterested in foreign policy, and increasingly isolationist.

Most importantly, however, the Kremlin’s turn to an activist foreign policy was caused by a powerful domestic political imperative. By Putin’s third term, even with oil prices historically high, a toxic investment climate had reduced economic growth to a crawl. Opinion polls were consistently showing that the public viewed authorities at every level as deeply corrupt, callous, and incompetent. In the words of Alexei Kudrin, the former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, and a personal friend of Putin, the Russian economy had hit an “institutional wall.”

 

A few months before Putin’s 2012 reelection, mass anti-regime demonstrations broke out in over 100 Russian cities and towns. Most troublingly, Putin’s personal popularity, the foundation of the regime’s legitimacy, was beginning to decline steadily, reaching its lowest point ever at the end of 2013. Unwilling to undertake liberalizing institutional reforms, Putin made what was likely the most fateful decision of his political career: he switched the basis of his (and thus the regime’s) support and legitimacy from economic progress and growth of personal incomes to patriotic mobilization.

The new policy rested on two linked propaganda points: Russia was “rising from its knees,” and therefore the West had declared war on it. Although threatened on all sides by implacable enemies, Russia had nothing to fear so long as Putin remained at the helm: not only would he protect the motherland but he would also recover the Soviet Union’s status of a power that the world both feared and respected.

On national television, where an overwhelming majority of Russians get their news, foreign policy came to be reported as a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of breathtaking initiatives and brilliant successes. There followed the annexation of Crimea; the war on Ukraine, aimed at the dismemberment, destabilization, and ultimate subversion of a Europe-bound neighbor; and widening involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Thus far, the shift in emphasis has proved successful. For millions of Russians, patriotic enthusiasm at the sight of the motherland besieged yet somehow also victorious has obscured the ever-deepening recession: a projected GDP decline between 4 and 5 percent this year, inflation at 13 percent or higher, the ruble losing half of its value since 2013, the flight of $151 billion last year, and the share of Russians with incomes below the poverty line (about $160 a month) almost doubling in the past two years to 23 million people.

Putin has saddled the tiger of patriotic fervor and expertly ridden it in the right direction. Yet the tiger requires an increasingly large supply of meat, the bloodier the better—and the higher the patriotic pitch, the greater the risk of disappointment at reversals. Russia’s modern history is quite unambiguous on this score: in the past century-and-a half, some of the sharpest regime changes and/or policy turnarounds have occurred following military and foreign-policy setbacks.

 

Putin knows this history. Which, for the West, suggests that the only means of making him begin to contemplate an adjustment is by trying to increase the domestic political costs and risks of his foreign policy. The dynamic must be gradually reversed, until a policy that is now almost the sole source of the regime’s success, legitimacy, and popular support becomes instead a wellspring of doubt, embarrassment, humiliation, and, finally, reconsideration.

A big step in the right direction would be the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—and the sooner, the better. On Russian television last month, Putin declared that “stabilizing the lawful [Syrian] authority” (i.e., Assad’s regime) was the key objective of the Russian intervention in that country. The dictator’s survival has thus become a test of Putin’s invincibility and his own legitimizing narrative. A reversal of Assad’s fortune would make that narrative considerably less credible.

Instead, both in the case of Assad and virtually across the entire range of Putin’s foreign-policy initiatives, the White House has pursued its futile search for “common ground”: the logical extension of its studied blindness to the motives that shape Putin’s geostrategy. As the Washington Post reported on December 2, President Obama continues to hope that the Russians will “change how they think” about the future of Assad: not a “180-degree” turn “in the next several weeks,” to be sure, but soon.

The same intellectual disability is evinced by another piece of recent news from the White House: the sending of non-lethal “worn-out” and “subpar” equipment to Ukraine, it being still a no-no to send even such purely defensive weaponry as anti-tank missiles out of apparent fear of provoking Putin—as if the last fifteen years have not proved that the Russian dictator is guided by his own ideological and political lodestar. At any rate, as far as the official narrative is concerned, the West’s “provocation” of Russia has already happened. From the beginning, the Maidan revolution was labeled a CIA plot, and Putin himself characterized Ukraine as “NATO’s Foreign Legion.” As Russian wits put it, America has been at war with Russia, except that America doesn’t know it yet.

And this brings us to the administration’s “Putin-is-weak” thesis, which Doran proceeds to dismiss as a shibboleth devoid of operational meaning. With at least a quarter of its GDP and at least half of its revenue still derived from oil and natural gas, Russia’s economy (tenth largest in the world until oil prices plunged) may indeed be too weak and vulnerable to serve as a reliable base for revisionist projects in the long or even medium term. But what acting politician thinks in those terms? Certainly not Putin. A judo enthusiast, he learned a long time ago that a much lighter and smaller judoka, like himself, can take on a heavier and taller opponent and win the ippon, by points if not by a decisive throw, so long as he moves fast to exploit imbalance and hesitancy.

And he is quite right to think so. As Doran points out, Russia’s deployment of two squadrons of Sukhoi bombers and fighter jets, along with the most advanced surface-to-air missile system in its arsenal, plus about 4,000 marines to guard them at the Russian base in Latakia, has almost instantly redrawn the geostrategic map of the Middle East. As if to affirm the change, we had the procession of heads of state to the Kremlin beginning with the Israeli prime minister, the urgent call by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to his Russian counterpart, and the reported plans by Iraq to “coordinate” its intelligence henceforth with Russia.

And that is just Syria. Today, tomorrow, and for quite a while—indeed, until Putin dies in office, is ousted, or is killed (having stepped on the Saddam Hussein/Muammar Qaddafi escalator from which there is no other exit)—the Russian president-for-life presents the West with the unprecedented challenge of a resurgent and perhaps messianically-minded dictatorship armed with 1,582 strategic nuclear warheads on 515 strategic launchers. In this context, Putin’s “weakness” becomes less of an operational descriptive than a comforting cliché justifying inaction.

More about: Barack Obama, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syria, Vladimir Putin