It was not that long ago that President Obama leaned over to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and whispered that after his reelection he would have more flexibility to make concessions with the U.S. missile-defense system that Vladimir Putin so much wanted. The conversation took place in March 2012 at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, Korea and was picked up by a microphone that neither one knew was open.
It was an odd exchange that did not get as much attention as it should have. But the implications today are clear: Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, totally misread Putin. By the time Obama was working to renegotiate U.S. national defense, Putin had already shown himself to be a new breed of Russian authoritarian leader.
Putin was providing critical cover to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has used chemical weapons against the civilian population driving more than a million into exile. Iran, which is in a race to develop nuclear weapons, has the protection of the Russians to the detriment of U.S. allies, particularly Israel.
Just a few weeks ago, Israel intercepted a shipment of Iranian missiles being sent to jihadists in Gaza. Russia’s sphere of influence has clearly expanded.
At the same time, North Korea was working to launch yet another long-range missile in complete defiance of the international community. During this time, Putin had already made clear his disdain for the United States and its international policies, perhaps guessing that the Obama doctrine was going to be one of appeasement. After the illustrative microphone gaffe, what else could he assume?
Interestingly, it was Mitt Romney who pointed out in a presidential debate that Russia was “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Obama responded that the Cold War had been over for 20 years.
That may not be true today with Putin’s annexation of Crimea through a militarily coerced “election” where all opposition was suppressed. The voting process was monitored by Russian troops.
Last week Romney wrote a critical article in the Wall Street Journal citing the numerous errors this administration has made in foreign policy, especially with Russia.
“President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton traveled the world in pursuit of their promise to reset relations and to build friendships across the globe. … Their failure has been painfully evident.”
Romney adds that their failure, particularly as it relates to Russia and the Ukraine, is because, in part, of a “failure to act when action was possible and needed.”
While much damage has been done to U.S. credibility and international peace, not all is lost. NATO is being resuscitated to ensure that Putin does not continue to expand his military forces, remembering that it is created to ensure the collective security of member states. The Ukraine and Georgia may be invited to join. Real sanctions, unlike the ineffective ones currently imposed and openly mocked by Russian officials, need to be expanded to include Putin and those in his sphere of influence. The United States could also export natural gas to Europe, which is dependent upon Russia, hurting Putin in the pocket book. This could destabilize his regime.
The point is to deter escalating military tensions, not to enter into war. This is the least that can be done considering that now world maps need to be redrawn.
In addition, there is the Budapest Memorandum Treaty, signed in 1994. That year, Ukraine signed a treaty of nuclear nonproliferation and destroyed its weapons in exchange for respect of its territorial sovereignty. That includes the recognition of the Ukrainian borders, which included Crimea, and the use of military force only if recognized as legitimate under the charter of the United Nations. The guarantors who signed this treaty ago are the United States, Great Britain and Russia.
Call this a renewed Cold War or what others consider a frosty rivalry, none of it is good. Some suggest that Putin is on the wrong side of history with his view of the world, but despots seldom seem to care. They make their own history. The United States needs to appropriately respond to this danger with NATO. This will let the next generation of Russian leaders know that we want Russia to be a strategic partner in international affairs, but that the international rule of law must be respected. We promised that to the Ukraine, and the world, in 1994.