Shadow Government

Putin's Playing Risk, While Obama's Playing Candy Land

Or: Why Russia's President Thought He Could Get Away With It

Few would have predicted even a month ago that Ukraine would escalate from a regional challenge into one of the most significant tests of the Obama presidency. As events unfold and the Obama administration begins to marshal its response, it is worth taking up the prior question: why did Putin decide he could get away with this aggression in the first place? Some other Shadow Government contributors have already started to address this. My former NSC colleague Mike Singh rightly highlights what appears to be the administration's failure of contingency planning, and below Paul Bonicelli thoughtfully explores the ideological presuppositions behind President Obama's worldview.

Lest this lapse into Monday-morning quarterbacking, I hope that looking at past mistakes will help the White House recalibrate its Russia policy going forward. And while the administration has made abundant mistakes, it bears repeating that Putin bears the full moral responsibility (read: guilt) for Russia's aggression. Those of us frustrated over Obama's foreign policy should guard against falling into a "blame America" posture. Nor should we single out American mistakes; the EU has made its share of colossal blunders on Ukraine, as Jan Techau persuasively describes here.

But the fact remains that over the last five years the Obama administration has made a series of mistakes and misjudgments that in the aggregate helped facilitate Putin's strategic assessment that he could attack Ukraine with impunity. These included:

  • Framing the "reset" in a way that implied the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations had been America's fault. The implicit premise of the "re-set" was that the United States under the Bush administration had mishandled the Russia relationship, and now under Obama was going to try a new approach. In fact, Putin was the primary cause of the deterioration. While the Bush administration had spent years trying to build a constructive relationship with Russia, it was Putin's actions -- such as cyberattacks on Estonia, energy blackmail of Ukraine, repression of political dissent, support for Iran, and especially the 2008 invasion of Georgia -- that primarily caused the downturn.
  • Placing a losing bet on Medvedev. During Dmitri Medvedev's forgettable four years as the Russian president, the Obama administration invested considerable diplomatic capital and presidential time in building a relationship with Medvedev and trying to bolster his standing as the main authority in Russia. All the while, Putin lurked behind the presidency in his prime ministerial role and wielded the real power. The administration's bet on Medvedev represents dashed hopes and squandered resources, and a missed opportunity to deal more strongly with Putin at the time.
  • Bringing a 1970s remedy to a 21st century challenge. In a 2012 presidential campaign debate, President Obama derided Gov. Mitt Romney's criticisms of Russia with the snide line that "the 1980s are calling and they want their foreign policy back." Which is ironic, given that the Obama administration brought a 1970s approach to its own Russia policy. The aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship that the White House devoted the most time and attention to during Obama's first term was negotiating the New START treaty. Reasonable people can disagree over whether in arms reduction terms the U.S. or Russia benefited more, but the more enduring story is that, unlike the 1970s, arms control is a secondary issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship today. The nuclear stocks of both nations are a small fraction of their heights in the Cold War. The inordinate diplomatic capital the Obama administration spent on that treaty could have been better spent on other more salient issues, such as Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, human rights and democracy, economic reforms, energy policy, terrorism, and Russia's troubled relationships with its border states, just to name a few.
  • Talking big and doing little on Syria. This has been pointed out abundantly elsewhere but bears repeating in this context. Obama's empty threats, that Assad "must go," that chemical weapons use is a "red line," along with the farcical Geneva process, have sent a clear message to Putin: America under Obama will not back up its words. Obama compounded this erosion of credibility when he handed Putin the initiative on Syria with the (now failing) chemical weapons deal.
  • Asking for more "flexibility." This remains one of the signature moments in Obama's Russia policy, and when it became public it became even more damaging, as it gave the impression to much of the world that Putin held the upper hand over Obama.
  • Bringing the "Candy Land" board to a game of "Risk." If geopolitics were board games, this is the cardinal fault of the Obama administration: being unrealistic about power politics. (There are many metaphors being tossed around to contrast the different approaches of Putin and Obama -- e.g. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers's line that "Putin is playing chess, and ... we are playing marbles"). Of all of the ongoing efforts to understand Obama administration foreign policy, the most implausible are those that call President Obama a "realist." Fred Kaplan is the latest to fall for this line, though in his telling it just seems to mean that Obama doesn't want the United States very involved in the world. Yet realism at its core is not about nonintervention; it is about power politics and national interests. The uber-realist Putin understands this, which is why he is playing a ruthless game of power projection in a zero-sum world. Above all else, the White House needs to understand Putin's approach, and reframe its strategy accordingly.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Putin Brings Real-World Experience to the Graduate School Seminar Crowd

My Shadow colleagues Inboden and Tobey offer insightful advice for the Obama administration regarding Ukraine; here, I offer a reason why we have come to need their advice.

Vladimir Putin has managed to drag us all back into the 19th-century balance-of-power politics that were supposed to have been vanquished by our enlightened age of international law and institutions. How did he accomplish this? The pundits and experts have been scrambling to explain how their predictions of a non-interventionist Putin were so wrong. Is it because Putin is just extra-mean and aggressive and caught everyone by surprise?

No, the problem is the mindset of the Obama administration, its foreign-policy thinking, and that of many in the media and academia. It is a problem of fundamentals. To be sure, Putin is responsible for his own actions and nothing can absolve him of the crime of taking by force a country that he wishes would just fall into his arms willingly. But he could not do what he is doing if the Obama administration and the EU were not who they are. Perhaps the EU should get less blame for this state of affairs than the United States does because Europe has had to rely on the U.S. to do the leading and the heaviest lifting for a long time now. When the United States doesn't, Europe tends to bow to pressures with France's incursion into Mali being a notable and laudable example.

While there are many theories and approaches to understanding foreign affairs, all of them boil down to two basic views: the realism-based view that accepts that the world is an anarchy and power is the final arbiter of disputes; and the idealism-based view that insists that the world is a community and international law should be the final arbiter of disputes. Note that the first view doesn't have room for the word "should" because it doesn't wish or hope for something that is not quite there. Note also that the power it understands is multifaceted and it definitely includes the control of territory -- that's quite important in the present circumstances.

This divide doesn't neatly capture conservatives on the one side and liberals on the other because people locate themselves at points on a spectrum rather than sitting in a box labeled realism or idealism, and they afford themselves some wiggle room depending on the issue. But fundamentally, this is about human nature as the American founders understood it. That is, some policymakers believe the natural state of human affairs is one of conflict and self-seeking while others believe it is one of cooperation and consensus-building.

Putin is in the former group. He watched as he got his way with Georgia, Syria, and Iran, and also on missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic; he further observes the U.S. doing little in response to China's saber rattling in the East China Sea. He has seen that by the exercise of power (through others or his own) the West shows weakness and so he can enhance Russia's interests -- as he defines them. And he does not define them by being on the right side of history, being a member in good standing of the G-8, or being spoken well of in diplomatic circles. He certainly does not define them by being a good partner in the global effort to thwart climate change. He's been rebuilding the prestige and power of Russia since before he became president the first time and for the last five years he's been able to do that quite vigorously with muscle and might and intimidation.

He has been motivated to do this because of his view of the world and his strategy for Russia's place in it both in offensive terms as well as defensive terms. But why act so boldly now, to literally threaten the peace of Europe and thus the world? Because he can. Because he's taking Obama up on that "flexibility" promised to Medvedev. But most importantly because the Obama administration's posture toward Russia is based on the idealist view and thus assumes mutually desired cooperation, dialogue and accommodation. In short, Obama has been treating Russia as an ally and assumes it shares our interests in supporting and furthering a community of nations built on international law and institutions.

Of course, the assumption is flatly wrong and easily dismissed by a review of Putin's tenure in office. Putin understands all politics -- domestic and international -- as zero-sum. This past weekend he demonstrated that conclusively. The Obama administration has no choice now but to throw out absurd notions of resets, major cuts to troop levels, and every other policy based on the flawed notion that their idealist reasoning produces.

How is it that the president, a smart man, and his advisors, also smart, have been so wrong about Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian dictator, and others? Because they want to believe that the realist view where power and anarchy reign is wrong and that the idealist view of cooperation and international law is right. No amount of facts on the ground has dissuaded them of this belief until, one hopes, now.

Henry Kissinger famously notes that those powers that seek peace above all else are at the mercy of those powers that are willing to deny it to fulfill their interests. Putin is demonstrating that he knows this. He wants territory around Russia or at least control over it and he can get that, but only if the United States and the EU actually act. If they don't, he'll continue to operate in the world of power politics and keep gaining back the Russian empire, while Obama continues to insist on a community of international law and keeps losing.

Obama and his advisors, from grad school until now, have apparently seen the entire world as a single collection of nation-states just waiting to cooperate if the right people came into power in the United States to midwife it through dialogue and nice-making. Surely that belief has evaporated. It is time for the Obama administration to embrace reality and do what Putin did long ago and the rest of Russia's reluctant neighbors are doing: Make two lists, one of your friends and the other of your enemies; support the first and torment the second. It might be distasteful to some, but it is the real world.

ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images