Whoever wins the race to the White House is going to have to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin from day one. Hopefully, the next U.S. president will learn from the mistakes of the past.
One of the biggest foreign policy follies of the Obama administration was the so-called Russian “reset.”
In March 2009, Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov symbolically, if not awkwardly, pressed a “reset” button—to demonstrate a fresh start to U.S.-Russian relations.
The Russian on the button was wrongly translated by the State Department as “overload” instead of “reset.” How telling…
The U.S. has gained nothing substantial as a result of this so-called “reset” policy. However, wrongly judging Putin is not a trait unique to the Obama administration.
After meeting with Putin for the first time in 2001, George W. Bush was asked by a reporter if he could trust Putin. Cutting straight to the point 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.
One can only imagine what Putin was thinking. Bush looked Putin in the eye and saw his soul. As an ex-KGB officer, Putin looked Bush in the eye and probably saw a case number!
Often, commentators describe Putin’s behavior as “Cold War” behavior reminiscent of the Soviet Union. This is largely incorrect. What the West is dealing with today is an imperial Russia. Under Putin’s leadership, Russian policy is more like that during the time of the czar before the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Putin is an imperial leader. Thanks to his constitutional gymnastics, Putin has been either prime minister or president of Russia since 1999 and can remain in either one of these positions for as long as he lives.
Also, Putin has far more in common with his czarist predecessors than he does with any general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Take the Arctic for example.
Peter the Great launched what is still today the largest ever scientific expedition in the world to explore Russia’s Arctic region. In 1724, this cost 1/6 of the Russian state budget.
Today, under Putin’s leadership, Russia is militarizing the region and overall investments in the Russian Arctic for the period 2015-20 will amount to almost $5 billion. This sum is greater than the whole gross domestic produce of many small African countries!
In 1772, Russian forces, under the leadership of Catherine the Great, attacked various Syrian cities along the coastal Levant and even occupied Beirut for six months. Today, Putin is back in the region.
But of all of Russia’s previous leaders, perhaps Putin has most in common with Czar Nicholas I who ruled Russia between 1825 and 1855.
Nicholas I’s reign was marked by a stagnate economy, the crushing of political dissent, struggle against Islamic fundamentalists in the North Caucasus, territorial expansions in the South Caucasus, and a war in Crimea.
In the same way Russia is only an Asian power and not a European power without exerting influence in Eastern Europe, Russia is only a regional power and not a global power if it is not an actor in the Middle East.
We should not see Russia’s interventions in places like Ukraine or Syria in isolation—but instead as one part of a well thought out strategy to maximize Russian influence all over the globe.
The difference between Russia and the West right now is that Russia has a strategy that it is willing to follow and the West is hoping the problem disappears.
The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy when all it has right now is a response.
Russia’s actions today have their roots in the failure of the Russian “reset,” and the personal ambition of Putin. Russia has been able to exploit the situation to its own benefit, calculating that the West won’t respond in any significant way.
It is through this lens that the next U.S. president must see the problem and develop America’s strategy.