Commentary Magazine


Topic: geopolitical foe

Russia Threatens More Than Neighbors

Today while speaking at The Hague during a meeting of the newly contracted G-7 Nations, President Obama threatened Russia with expanded sanctions. But he also made it clear that he isn’t that worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Dismissing the complaints from conservatives who remember how he scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president asserted that Moscow’s aggression was a sign of its weakness, not strength, and that it was a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. He was, he said, more concerned about “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

The president is correct that the Russians are not likely to be aiming their nukes at the United States or invading our shores. He is also right to be focused on the still potent threat from Islamist terrorism that has persisted even after the strike on Osama bin Laden, whose death at the hands of Navy SEALs was used by the administration in 2012 as a sign that the war on terror was finished. But he’s dead wrong about the trouble that the Putin regime can cause for the United States. Putin can make trouble for more than the Eastern European countries that still remember their oppression at the hands of his Soviet and tsarist predecessors. By basing so much of his foreign policy on the assumption that Russia can be persuaded to go along with American initiatives in the Middle East that will allow Obama to withdraw from the world stage while “leading from behind,” the president finds himself not only coping with the implications of Putin’s aggression in Europe but the prospect of being blackmailed by Moscow over issues like Iran and Syria.

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Today while speaking at The Hague during a meeting of the newly contracted G-7 Nations, President Obama threatened Russia with expanded sanctions. But he also made it clear that he isn’t that worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Dismissing the complaints from conservatives who remember how he scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president asserted that Moscow’s aggression was a sign of its weakness, not strength, and that it was a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. He was, he said, more concerned about “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

The president is correct that the Russians are not likely to be aiming their nukes at the United States or invading our shores. He is also right to be focused on the still potent threat from Islamist terrorism that has persisted even after the strike on Osama bin Laden, whose death at the hands of Navy SEALs was used by the administration in 2012 as a sign that the war on terror was finished. But he’s dead wrong about the trouble that the Putin regime can cause for the United States. Putin can make trouble for more than the Eastern European countries that still remember their oppression at the hands of his Soviet and tsarist predecessors. By basing so much of his foreign policy on the assumption that Russia can be persuaded to go along with American initiatives in the Middle East that will allow Obama to withdraw from the world stage while “leading from behind,” the president finds himself not only coping with the implications of Putin’s aggression in Europe but the prospect of being blackmailed by Moscow over issues like Iran and Syria.

The administration is characteristically attempting to have it both ways on the struggle between Russia and Ukraine. On the one hand he understands that the man who is still seen as the leader of the free world cannot be seen to stand by mutely while a democratic nation that looks to the West for protection is dismembered and perhaps swallowed whole by its former Russian masters. Yet, Obama has spared no effort to make it clear that he will not allow the seizure of Crimea or even a possible invasion of eastern Ukraine to draw him into a fight with Putin.

No one imagines that the U.S. would involve itself in a direct confrontation on the territory of a non-NATO nation in Europe. But Obama’s slowness to react to the attack on Ukraine with serious sanctions or the aid that might allow Kiev to put up a fight on its own was not missed in Moscow. While Putin’s government may be weak in terms of its economic and military might when compared to the sole superpower left in the world, it is still more than a match for the region. A Russia that feels undeterred by Obama’s taunts poses a potent challenge not only to the Ukraine but also to the Baltic republics and Poland. If the president doesn’t understand how threats to these NATO members could draw the United States into conflicts for which it is not prepared, he isn’t paying attention.

Even more to the point, Russia is a crucial element in any effort to restrain Iran via diplomacy or to broker some sort of resolution to the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. That they are in the catbird seat on these important issues is due solely to the miscalculations of the president and his two secretaries of state who gambled America’s influence on a farcical attempt at a “reset” with Russia that is still impairing Washington’s ability to think straight about Moscow. The president still seems unable to wrap his head around the fact that Russian foreign policy is rooted in two overriding goals: to reassemble the Tsarist/Soviet empire and to thwart the U.S. at every possible opportunity.

Russia may not be thinking about dropping a bomb on Manhattan and for that we should be grateful. How do you characterize a country that can swallow democratic nations whole without fear of Western retribution, involve the U.S. in conflicts to defend NATO members and sabotage efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program while potentially pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East? If that’s not a top geostrategic foe that the president should be worried about, then I’d like to know what he thinks one would look like.

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Russia Confirms Romney’s Evaluation

Mitt Romney was roundly mocked in March by the mainstream media and many so-called foreign policy wise men for saying Russia was America’s top “geopolitical foe.” He was accused of attempting to revive the Cold War and an derided for his lack of understanding of international nuance by those who preferred President Obama’s much cooler approach to the regime of Vladimir Putin which has included a failed “reset” and a hot microphone promise by the president that he would be able to be more “flexible” in his second term in dealing with Russia’s demands. But three months later, with Russia sending missile defense systems to Syria, it would appear that Romney’s evaluation was right on target.

The announcement on Friday that Russia would be sending advanced missiles to the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad was a body blow to those who have been trying to convince the world that Putin was prepared to play ball with the West. The missiles are intended to help Assad fend off any Western intervention in Syria as the dictator continues to repress dissent and slaughter his people. The move is troubling in of itself as it will embolden Assad to stand his ground against international pressure and make any intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis there much more difficult. But it also reveals what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions in the last decade. Putin’s goal is to reconstitute as far as possible the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. As far as he is concerned, the discussion about human rights in Syria is irrelevant. Syria is his client state, and like his Soviet predecessors, he is determined to preserve it at any cost, something that will also have serious implications for the West’s attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program. If that isn’t a geopolitical foe for the United States, then what exactly would one look like?

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Mitt Romney was roundly mocked in March by the mainstream media and many so-called foreign policy wise men for saying Russia was America’s top “geopolitical foe.” He was accused of attempting to revive the Cold War and an derided for his lack of understanding of international nuance by those who preferred President Obama’s much cooler approach to the regime of Vladimir Putin which has included a failed “reset” and a hot microphone promise by the president that he would be able to be more “flexible” in his second term in dealing with Russia’s demands. But three months later, with Russia sending missile defense systems to Syria, it would appear that Romney’s evaluation was right on target.

The announcement on Friday that Russia would be sending advanced missiles to the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad was a body blow to those who have been trying to convince the world that Putin was prepared to play ball with the West. The missiles are intended to help Assad fend off any Western intervention in Syria as the dictator continues to repress dissent and slaughter his people. The move is troubling in of itself as it will embolden Assad to stand his ground against international pressure and make any intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis there much more difficult. But it also reveals what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions in the last decade. Putin’s goal is to reconstitute as far as possible the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. As far as he is concerned, the discussion about human rights in Syria is irrelevant. Syria is his client state, and like his Soviet predecessors, he is determined to preserve it at any cost, something that will also have serious implications for the West’s attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program. If that isn’t a geopolitical foe for the United States, then what exactly would one look like?

The missiles and the lack of a Western response to this provocation will confirm Assad in his opinion that he has nothing to lose by continuing to ruthlessly exterminate his domestic opposition. He has rightly discerned that Russian weapons as well as the material support from his allies in Iran and their Lebanese Hezbollah auxiliaries means more than all the crocodile tears being shed for the Syrian people in Washington and Western European capitals. International opprobrium is no match for a determined and bloodthirsty ruler with the backing of allies such as these.

But the consequences of Putin’s virtual guarantee of Assad’s survival are more serious than the prospect of the continuance of his family’s decades-long reign of terror. By re-planting its flag in the Middle East in this fashion, Russia is sending a message that it is willing to brutally thwart Western interests and sensibilities. This should also sober up those expecting Putin to put his weight behind Western efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. With a third round of negotiations of the P5+1 group with Iran set to resume this week in Moscow, there is little doubt that the Russians (along with the Chinese) will not allow the Iranians to be backed into a corner. Though they have good reason to fear an Iranian nuke, Russia’s foreign policy imperative is always to sabotage America’s interests.

After the comical failures of appeasement of Russia that have been the hallmark of the Obama administration’s approach to Europe, it seems as if Romney is far more realistic about the Putin regime than either President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton. Though Democrats assume that they have the advantage on foreign policy against the Republicans, Putin’s provocations are a reminder that an alternative to the current approach to his regime is needed.

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