Seeds of suspicion

Barack Obama began, as most idealistic leaders do, with good intentions, to bring about a “reset” in relations with Russia.

Barack Obama began, as most idealistic leaders do, with good intentions, to bring about a “reset” in relations with Russia.

As Russia stands poised on the edge of a military invasion of Ukraine and tensions are at an all-time high between Moscow and the West, it is evident that the seeds of deep-rooted suspicion between the U.S. and Russia were sown during the second term of the Barack Obama administration. As the U.S. correspondent for this newspaper during 2010-15, it was obvious to me that what could loosely be described as ‘Cold War 2.0’ was gaining traction during those years, and the interregnum of the Trump years thereafter did little to mitigate the bilateral malaise.

Mr. Obama began, as most idealistic leaders do, with good intentions, to bring about a “reset” in relations with Russia. At the time, Vladimir Putin had stepped back from the Russian presidency to the role of Prime Minister, ceding the top post to Dmitri Medvedev. Yet within the politics of Washington’s beltway, it was hardly a secret that Mr. Medvedev was considered Robin to Mr. Putin’s Batman. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev, it was clear, shared a decent amount of personal chemistry and that allowed them to earnestly embark on tackling some of the big bilateral policy issues of the day. In early 2010, they signed the New START Treaty, which restricted both nations to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, nearly two-thirds less than what the original START treaty permitted. Russia entered the World Trade Organization in 2012. However, by that time, Mr. Putin had re-entered the presidency and then the troubles began again.

The irony was that it was not bilateral issues as such that generated the most tension. Rather, Russian involvement – or lack thereof – in third countries such as Libya and Syria had a destabilising effect on what little ‘reset momentum’ had been carefully built so far. In Libya, Russia along with China allowed the passage of a UN resolution in 2011 setting up a no-fly zone, an action that did not win support of the U.S., U.K., France, and others, which continued air operations in the country. In Syria, while civil war escalated around 2012, it was again Moscow and Beijing that blocked numerous UN resolutions critical of Bashar al Assad, even as the U.S. and Western European powers chose to recognise the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition. Petty bickering over specific individuals then muddied the bilateral waters further, including the cases of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009 after accusing certain Russian authorities of corruption and after whom the U.S. Congress named a sanctions law that it passed in 2012; and of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the depth and breadth of U.S. intelligence agencies’ surveillance of domestic and foreign targets, and then fled to Russia evading Espionage Act charges in the U.S.

The last straw came in 2014, when Mr. Putin annexed Crimea in Ukraine – yet the Obama administration’s response was timid. It included a bevy of sanctions in coordination with the European Union and an attempt to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, the European Reassurance Initiative. In part Mr. Obama faced domestic political constraints in terms of not being able to embark on any military adventurism to contain Russian territorial aggression. However, more pertinent was the fact that Mr. Obama likely believed that rather than fomenting Cold War 2.0, Russian actions only represented the weak ambition of a “regional power” – an assessment that subsequent developments have shown to be poorly made.

Thus, by the time intelligence reports of interference in U.S. elections, including those linking Russian groups to Democratic Party server hacking and targeted undermining of the Hillary Clinton campaign, began to surface in early 2016, it was too late for a hard push back. This legacy of tepid response will perhaps continue to shape the decisions of U.S. President Joe Biden as he manoeuvres to answer Mr. Putin’s challenge.

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Printable version | May 23, 2022 10:52:34 pm |