We’re a long way off from those heady days when Mitt Romney was the subject of withering mockery for daring to notice that Moscow’s geopolitical objectives were in direct conflict with our own. Today, with the Republican Party’s nominee doing his best to rehabilitate the image of Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama has adopted a lot of hard-nosed rhetoric when it comes to Russia. In practice, however, the Obama administration has continued to rely on Russia to help maintain an international order toward which Putin is openly hostile. Today, the White House’s misguided Russia policy is going up in smoke.
In 2009, just one year after Moscow invaded and carved up Georgia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were posing for “reset” photo ops. In 2013, when the president wanted a way out of his pledge to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, the Russians were more than happy to oblige. Finally, when Western forces were compelled to intervene in Syria, Moscow stepped in to rescue its faltering client in Damascus. This bellicosity was rewarded by Obama in the form of legitimizing “non-confliction” agreements and de facto military partnerships. All of this was to protect and preserve the Obama administration’s singular mission: a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Today, with the third ceasefire agreement of 2016 dead and buried, Secretary of State John Kerry would like you to believe that he’s had all he can stand from the Russians. In a telephone call with Lavrov, Kerry struck a tough tone. He insisted that Moscow must take “immediate steps” to bring an end to the regime offensive on the rebel-held city of Aleppo—an offensive that Russian air assets are actively supporting. The Russians, for their part, have done nothing. And why would they? Obama has demonstrated clearly and for seven years that nothing Moscow can do—from invading and annexing territory in Europe, to harassing American air and naval assets, to displacing the United States in the Middle East as the diplomatic power of first resort—will dissuade the White House from seeking deeper bilateral ties.
Kerry’s furrowed-brow warnings come amid a series of unspeakable Russian atrocities in Syria. The United States alleges it was the Russian air force that targeted and neutralized a United Nations convoy of relief bound for Aleppo. It has not refuted reports that Russia is using cluster weapons, incendiary munitions, and white phosphorous against anti-Assad rebel targets in Syria. Kerry reportedly expressed “grave concern” over reports that Moscow is joining with Assad’s air forces to target civilian infrastructure and even hospitals.
Kerry’s grave concerns were expressed on the very same day that a Netherlands-based investigation into the 2014 destruction of a civilian airliner over Eastern Ukraine was the work of Moscow just one step removed. As Max Boot explained earlier in detail, the Russian SA-11 (Buk) surface-to-air missile that targeted and destroyed Malaysian Airlines flight 70—killing 298 people, 80 of whom were children—was moved into Ukraine and back into Russia on the same day of the attack. The war Russia is still waging in Ukraine has yielded a few targeted sanctions against individuals in the Russia government, but nothing so severe that it might actually compel a behavior change on the part of the Kremlin.
Now, with Russian military intelligence believed to be linked to brazen cyber warfare operations directly aimed at influencing the American political process and handicapping Democrats, Barack Obama feels moved to talk tough. Kind of. When asked if the hacks amounted to a Russian intelligence operation on Wednesday, CIA Director John Brennan confessed that it “certainly looks like a duck, smells like a duck and flies like a duck.” But even this concession was something the White House had hoped to avoid, lest they threaten the project of rapprochement with Russia.
According to BuzzFeed defense reporter Ali Watkins, the White House leaned on the ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees—Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats—to keep what they knew about the hacks and their Russian links quiet. The two did not agree, although they reportedly omitted some of the specifics of the Russian operation. The statement they eventually released was by no means watered down. “Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” they insisted. So much for the president’s working relationship with Moscow.
This is a policy failure historians will study for generations.