When Barack Obama enters the geopolitical funhouse these days, the distorting mirrors reflect back very different images of the U.S. president. The mirror held up by the Republican Party shows a presidential beanpole, a 98-pound weakling who is continually getting sand kicked into his face—by Syria’s Assad, North Korea’s Kim, Cuba’s Castro, and assorted other bullies.
The administration’s own mirror reveals a slightly bulked-up leader who professes to prefer diplomacy and is desperate to shift his attention to the Pacific. With a Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and an unmanned drone in the other, the president in this more flattering portrait is capable of following either Mars or Venus, depending on the situation.
The funhouse mirror that Russia has constructed, however, is perhaps the oddest of them all. It displays Obama-as-Rambo, a leader even more military-minded than his predecessors. With his bare muscular chest crisscrossed with cartridge belts, this version of Obama has a marked penchant for military intervention, a willingness to ally with Ukrainian fascists, and an inexplicable desire to court World War III by poking the Russian bear. In other words, when Obama looks into the Russian funhouse mirror, Mitt Romney stares back.
The United States has switched from “soft containment” of Russia to “hard containment,” according to Dmitri Suslov of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies in Moscow. Obama, according to this interpretation, is eager to christen a new Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe and cultivate a cold war with the Kremlin.
Even distorted mirrors reflect some element of reality. The Obama administration has certainly backed the interim Ukrainian government, which includes a handful of neo-fascists. Obama also supported NATO enlargement eastward, though none of this took place on his watch (the most recent members of NATO, Albania and Croatia, joined in 2009 and represent an expansion not to the east but to the south). And in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine, Washington has indeed imposed some punitive sanctions against Russia.
But in other respects, the Obama administration has been extraordinarily risk-averse toward Russia. The president set great store by the “reset” of relations after the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, and his personal rapport with then-President Dmitry Medvedev suggested a youthful reinvigoration of relations. Washington and Moscow achieved the New START agreement on reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. Obama cancelled a planned missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia was happy to see go (though it’s not likely to be happy about the replacement system that will target short- and medium-range missiles).
The Obama team has also worked with Russia, albeit reluctantly at times, on negotiating with Iran, hammering out a deal on chemical weapons with Syria, and cooperating on both military and non-military initiatives in Afghanistan. Washington also supported Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, which finally happened in 2011 after 18 years of negotiations.
There have been points of conflict. Congress pushed through the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which the president signed, to punish Russian officials connected to the death in prison of auditor-whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Washington and Moscow lined up on opposite sides of the Syria conflict. And Moscow saw the hand of the State Department in the anti-Putin demonstrations that began in the winter of 2011. But these were the usual disagreements that plague any two major powers.
The reemerging cold war between Washington and Moscow centers on the fundamental disagreements over Ukraine. But it would be a mistake to pin all the responsibility for the downturn in relations on the Euromaidan protests that ejected the Ukrainian president earlier this year. After all, something similar happened in 2004, and the two major nuclear powers didn’t square off at that time.
In the Orange Revolution of 2004, anti-government protests in Ukraine forced a do-over in the presidential run-off, which ultimately knocked out the Russian-leaning government of Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in the more nationalist administration of Viktor Yushchenko. The United States and the EU threw their support behind Yushchenko, and the Bush administration even held open the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine. Why didn’t Russia force a showdown back then?
In 2004, neither Russian nor Washington was primed for confrontation. The Bush administration was preoccupied with Iraq and terrorism. Putin, meanwhile, was still consolidating his political powerbase, rebuilding the Russian economy, reining in the oligarchs, and dealing with Chechnya. He wasn’t in a position to challenge Ukraine.
By 2013, however, Putin’s strategic calculus had changed. And the two reasons for that changing calculus can be found in 2011. At the beginning of 2011, the Arab Spring ousted authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and eventually Yemen. By the end of the year, protests were breaking out in Moscow against Putin’s increasingly authoritarian policies. The former challenged Russian influence in a key area of the world. The latter translated “democracy promotion” into something very concrete and close to home.
The Arab Spring was a political blow for Putin because it undermined his larger strategic goal of reestablishing Russia as a global power. Putin has not only wanted to strengthen his own power in Moscow, ensure the cohesion of the Russian Federation, and protect the rights of Russians in the “near abroad” of neighboring countries. He wants Russia to be a superpower whose reach is commensurate with its past reputation and its current nuclear arsenal.
He’s got a long way to go. It’s not enough to boast the ninth-largest economy in the world or exert leverage with oil and gas exports. Superpowers are all over the map. But one of the few places in the world where Russia retains a measure of influence is the Middle East, the location of its only real military base outside the former Soviet Union (in Tartus, Syria). The U.S. invasion of Iraq removed one ally in the region. The Arab Spring threatened to eject Russia from the region altogether and thwart Putin’s geopolitical ambitions. Only Bashar al-Assad in Syria has remained as a principal conduit of Russian influence, and his hold on power remains shaky.
Before Obama began throwing U.S. support behind anti-government protestors in the Arab world, Putin had a list of accumulated grudges against the United States. He wasn’t happy with how Bush Sr. had treated the unraveling Soviet Union. He was distinctly displeased with how Clinton had pushed NATO eastward. And he was uncomfortable with Bush Jr.’s effort to remap the Middle East. During the Arab Spring, Putin felt that Obama was unwittingly opening the way for radical Islam to seize power in countries previously ruled by authoritarian nationalists who were open to Russian influence.
The spread of anti-government fervor to Moscow itself in 2011 made a dispiriting foreign policy trend into an urgent domestic crisis. When similar protests broke out again in Kiev, Putin saw opportunity in the crisis. In his move to support Russians in the near abroad, Putin could strike back against the policy of democracy promotion, draw a “line in the sand” against NATO, and position Russia as a global power that sits astride Eurasia like a colossus.
All of the accumulated resentments of past U.S. policies—the downgrading of Russian power, the expansion of NATO, the heedless democracy promotion—were placed on Obama’s shoulders. The funhouse mirror that Russia holds up to the American presidency reflects back not just Obama but a composite image of all recent U.S. leaders.
Last month, Obama made the cruelest possible comment about Putin’s realm when he said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength but out of weakness.” Instead of a reconstituted superpower, Russia appears in Obama’s funhouse mirror as a weakened, shrunken entity. Instead of diminishing Russia, which only encourages Putin to compensate with displays of alpha male behavior, the United States and its European allies have to figure out a way for Russia to exercise global power in a constructive rather than destructive way (a challenge that equally applies to how the rest of the world must deal with the United States).
To avoid the escalation in east-west tensions, both Putin and Obama have to step out of the funhouse of geopolitics. They need to view each other with a great deal more clarity and understanding. The fate of Ukraine—indeed, the fate of the world—depends on it.