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.