President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are trapped in binds of their own design. Since entering the White House, the Obama administration sought to present itself as the all-purpose antidote to every manner of malady, the majority of which they blamed on the Bush administration. Chief among those was the presumption that Russia and the United States again found themselves at odds only because the 43rd President needlessly antagonized Moscow. Their remedy was to outsource the role of superpower to the Kremlin and to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with unreciprocated policy concessions. Today, faced with a GOP nominee who is conspicuously friendly toward Russian interests, the administration is wallowing in the bed it made for itself.
The Trump campaign is presenting Democrats with an environment rich with easy targets, particularly when it comes to Russia. On Sunday, the New York Times published an exhaustively reported dispatch detailing the extensive financial ties between Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the Kremlin-linked clients with which he’s worked over the years. Among the more disturbing revelations in that exposé was the disclosure that Manafort’s name was on a hand-written “black ledger” promising a $12.7 million disbursement for his work in aiding the Kremlin-backed party of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It’s not clear if Manafort recouped this payment but, by failing to register as a foreign agent to comply with the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, Manafort’s behavior will and should be a campaign issue.
While the Times dispatch is not indicative of quid pro quo, the Trump campaign’s obsequious support for Russian geopolitical objectives—even goals that directly conflict with American interests—leaves observers with some ugly questions. Donald Trump has called NATO irrelevant and in need of a new mission statement that refocuses the alliance on theaters outside Europe. He has entertained the prospect of not coming to the defense of America’s Baltic allies if they were attacked. Trump has defended the murder of journalists and opposition figures in Russia, entertained the idea of ceding the Middle East to Moscow, and manages a campaign that reportedly leaned on Republican delegates to strike support for arming Ukraine with lethal weapons from the party’s platform. You can see why the appearance of a conflict of interest is hard to ignore.
Faced with the obvious political advantage of framing the GOP nominee as ill advisedly supportive of a geopolitical foe, Democrats are taking some big swings at Trump. President Obama suggested in an interview that Russian hacks of Democratic computer networks were designed to help the Republican nominee in November. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook called on anyone associated with Trump to divulge ties between them and “Russian or pro-Kremlin entities.” That’s all grand politicking, but it’s not especially honest. Trump’s deference to Russia is only a less self-conscious extension of Obama administration policy toward the Kremlin.
The world watched in 2009 as Obama’s diplomatic team, led by Clinton, engaged in a variety of scene-chewing displays of theatrics aimed at communicating to the world that a new age had dawned. The famed “reset” in Russian relations began inauspiciously when Hillary Clinton handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov an oversize Staples-brand “easy button”—which, humiliatingly, was mislabeled in Russian to read “overcharge” rather than “reset.” The Roddenberry-esque fantasy of global cooperation never materialized, nor was that the White House’s objective. Their goal was to provide as many concessions to Moscow as they could so as to compel it to support the president’s objective: a nuclear agreement with Iran.
In service to that aim, the Obama administration looked the other way amid a host of challenges from Moscow to American global authority.
Even despite UN sanctions, Russia pledged in 2011 to provide Iran with advanced S-300 anti-air missiles, challenged European security, undermined EU and OSCE authority, and conducted the most sweeping crackdown on domestic dissent since the Brezhnev era; all to the sound of Western silence. Having murdered and imprisoned its way to legitimacy at home, Moscow has turned to destabilizing the political environment abroad by supporting extremist and nationalistic political movements in Europe.
The Obama administration leaned on Moscow to rescue him from his ill-considered pledge to punish Bashar al-Assad in Syria only to watch helplessly as Damascus failed to surrender its chemical stockpiles while the disastrous civil war still raged. Yet even today, the White House crawls hat-in-hand to Russia begging them to support and help implement an endless series of ceasefires in Syria that Moscow clearly has no intention of abiding by or facilitating.
The Obama White House’s infatuation with diplomacy for its own sake was dealt a blow last week when Vladimir Putin announced he was likely to unilaterally pull out of the Normandy “Quartet” talks aimed at restoring peace to Ukraine’s east. There, Russian-backed forces and Ukrainian military have been fighting a low-boil conflict since Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. The talks with Moscow to resolve a conflict the Kremlin started were always ever a farce that Russia treated with the contempt they deserved.
Despite all this, the Obama administration continues to view Russia as a geostrategic partner with which it can do business rather than a threat that must be contained. Why, then, does this White House think it has any credibility on Russia? Both Obama and Clinton’s criticisms of Trump on Russia are a particularly tough pill to swallow considering that this Republican nominee’s policy preferences represent the logical extension of Obama’s determination to rehabilitate the legitimacy of Russian soft and hard power.
Russia does not now and never has had America’s best interests at heart. It’s ironic that it’s taken Trump to get the Democrats to recognize that.