The US and NATO failed Ukraine and enabled Putin’s aggression

Adolf Hitler’s force of will, backed up by massive military force, compelled Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and other European leaders to bend to his initial demands in the vain hope that it would satisfy his larger ambitions.

Four American presidents — two Republicans and two Democrats — have expressed an odd mix of fear and fascination with Vladimir Putin since he assumed power as Russia’s president in 2000. The fixation has seriously undermined the effectiveness of Western policy responses to Putin’s aggressive initiatives.

After meeting with him in June 2001, George W. Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul — a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” 

In April 2005, Putin made a dramatic statement that indicated both the “sense of his soul” and how he viewed “the best interests of his country,” which he clearly defined as not just Russia but a revived Soviet empire. In his annual state of the nation address, he declared that “the demise of the Soviet Union” — which most of the world had greeted as a miracle of liberation for hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe — was for him “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Three years later, Putin made clear his intention to reverse that history, by force if necessary — just as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and their successors had first imposed Moscow’s domination and, for 70 years, perpetuated it. In 2008, Putin ordered an invasion of the independent nation of Georgia, which was actively pursuing membership in NATO as several other countries, also former Soviet republics, successfully had done.  

The economic sanctions imposed by the Bush administration and other Western capitals did not punish Russia nearly enough to either reverse the occupation of Georgian territory or deter Putin from preparing his next invasion.

Despite the penchant for aggression that Putin already had demonstrated, Barack Obama went out of his way during the 2012 campaign to ingratiate himself with the Russian leader.  Whispering near a microphone he thought was turned off, he asked Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s designated presidential seat-warmer, to assure Putin that “after my election, I have more flexibility” (i.e., could be more accommodating) toward Putin’s interests. When Republican nominee Mitt Romney named Russia as America’s most immediate national security threat, Obama and his media allies ridiculed him.

The next year, Obama hosted Putin in Washington to discuss a range of issues, including the security situation in Syria, ending with a jocular exchange on their respective athletic skills (judo vs. basketball). 

In 2014, with the Bush sanctions still ineffective in deterring Putin’s aggressive instincts, and no new Obama sanctions, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine in support of pro-Russian separatist forces and seized all of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Both military operations were executed under the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking populations, a revanchist ethnic argument that Hitler used in the 1930s to justify his conquests of Austria and the Sudetenland.  

The Obama-Biden administration essentially was paralyzed by the twin aggressions in Ukraine and applied further modest sanctions that Putin easily could endure. As for international censure, Putin knew it would have a short half-life and, as a former Soviet operative, he also knew it was better to be feared than loved. In his memoir, Obama wrote, “Putin did, in fact, remind me of the sorts of men who had once run the Chicago machine … tough, street-smart, unsentimental characters … who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade.”

A fellow gangster type was Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s brutal ruler, whose attacks on his own people included the use of chemical weapons. This prompted Obama to state their further use would cross “a red line” and to declare that the Assad regime could not remain in power. But Obama backed down and, encouraged by Western passivity on Georgia and Ukraine, Putin intervened, sending Russian forces to keep Assad entrenched and unscathed. The brazen move enabled him to reassert a major Russian role in the Middle East for the first time since the Nixon administration had ejected the Soviets in 1972 — one more step in Putin’s plan to reconstruct the Soviet empire. 

Donald Trump imposed additional sanctions on Russia for its ongoing offenses, but again, not nearly enough to undo Putin’s new grip in the Mideast, Georgia, Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. He sent Ukraine the defensive weapons Obama had held up for years, while trying and failing to pressure Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to intervene politically against the Biden campaign.     

Trump frequently expressed his admiration for Putin, consistent with his affinity for other strongmen. In 2013, he sided with Putin by criticizing Obama’s reference to “American exceptionalism. … It’s very insulting and Putin really put it to him about that.” He also said, “Putin has done a really great job outsmarting our country.” During the 2016 campaign, he lashed back at Hillary Clinton’s labeling him as “Putin’s puppet.” Her accusation of Trump campaign “collusion” with Russia was eventually debunked by an independent investigation, though Trump’s constant praise for Putin allowed such accusations to gain traction. His meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018 without aides or a readout also aroused suspicion.

By the time Joe Biden took office, it could not have been clearer that Putin was embarked on a course of conduct deeply inimical to U.S. and Western interests and values. Yet, Biden described him as a “worthy adversary,” saying, “He’s bright, he’s tough.” Yet another American president intimidated by the Russian leader, unable to call out his transgressions without tempering the criticism with compliments.

Biden’s initial responses to the latest Russian threat against Ukraine were clearly ineffective in deterring Putin. On the contrary, they played into his hands: gratuitously taking U.S. and NATO military intervention completely off the table, holding economic sanctions in abeyance until after the war started, making the severity of sanctions subject to the will of NATO’s lowest common denominator. 

But the original fatal flaw in Western strategy — if it can be called a strategy — was the constant obeisance to the wishes of the “bright, tough” Russian dictator by deferring indefinitely the application of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, all the while professing to hold an “open door.” After all, Putin must not be “provoked.” Failing to arm those democracies properly added tragic injury to timorous insult.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Mitt Romney Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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