During the United States’ recent presidential campaign, one charge levelled against the Republican nominee Donald Trump was that he may be a sort of “Manchurian candidate” for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, pulling the strings from the Kremlin. The Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton even dropped hints that Moscow may mobilize its army of hackers to alter the election results in Trumps’ favor.
This comical version of the sinister McCarthyism of the 1950s was largely based on a brief boast by Trump that, being a master in the art of negotiation, he would “get along fine with Vladimir Putin.”
We don’t know how Trump might “get along” with Putin and on what terms. What we know is that he has not yet offered the family silver to the master of Kremlin. What we know is that part of Putin’s recent rogue behavior may well be due to President Barack Obama’s appeasement-plus approach to the United States’ rivals, adversaries and enemies.
Obama’s appeasement-plus approach encouraged the mullahs of Tehran to intensify their quest for hegemony in the Middle East by encouraging the revolt in Yemen, supporting a sanguinary despot in Syria, creating a parallel army in Iraq and imposing a protégé of Hezbollah as President of Lebanon.
The same approach persuaded China that Obama’s tenure provided a window of opportunity for Beijing to flex its muscles in the South China Sea and adjacent regions in preparation for the coming Great Game in the Pacific.
North Korea was also encouraged by Obama’s appeasement-plus policy. As US direct and indirect aid to the starving Communist nation almost doubled, Pyongyang speeded up the building of its nuclear arsenal, convinced that Obama would do no more than a little bit of huffing and puffing.
But it was precisely Putin who exploited Obama’s appeasement-plus policy with greater determination. When Obama entered the White House, Russia was beginning to contemplate the cost of its invasion of Georgia in August 2008. Though focused on the American presidential election campaign, the lame-duck Bush administration had managed to mobilize international support against the invasion, forcing Moscow to accept a process of consultations to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity at least in form.
One of Obama’s first moves was to shut down that process as a show of goodwill to Moscow. A further sign that Obama intended to relieve pressure on Russia came soon afterwards with the notorious “re-set” gadget that symbolized the new administration’s resolve to “de-Bushify” American policy towards Russia.
As if those two concessions were not enough, Obama soon offered Moscow a third gift by scrapping a US plan to install defensive missile sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, something the Russians had vehemently opposed during the Bush era with no success.
In her memoirs, Hilary Clinton’s then Obama’s Secretary of State, recalls how the president insisted that the US show “goodwill” to Russia by granting concrete concessions. Clinton claims she was opposed to “giving something for nothing” but was overruled by Obama.
So, the next present to Moscow was a freezing of plans to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) plans for enlargement. Talks with some of Russia’s “near neighbors”, notably Ukraine, Georgia and Uzbekistan were abruptly terminated without Moscow offering anything in return. Obama also scrapped another NATO plan for forging ties between NATO and six Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East in view to their associate membership in the future.
At the same time, the US closed down its logistics bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, two former Soviet republics, and threw its local political allies overboard, enabling pro-Moscow elements to strengthen their positions in Tashkent and Bishkek. The US also terminated the military mission it had in Armenia and Azerbaijan, two other former Soviet republics, in the context of preventing a revival of armed conflict in the disputed enclave of High-Gharabagh (Nogorno Karabakh). Russia lost no time in forcing its own military presence on Yerevan in the shape of a 20,000-man garrison assigned the task of keeping the peace in Transcaucasia.
When Washington’s European allies protested that Obama’s appeasement-plus policy was encouraging Russia’s aggressiveness, Obama did all he could to prevent the imposition of meaningful sanctions on Moscow. As if all those gifts were not enough, towards the end of his first mandate Obama was overheard telling Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s understudy as President, that , freed from problems of re-election, a second Obama administration would offer more goodies to Russia.
With a string of political and military provocations and concrete moves, Putin tested possible American reactions to his step-by-step plan against Ukraine for more than a year before concluding that the way was open for his big land-grab in the share of invading and annexing the Crimean Peninsula and carving a Russian-controlled enclave in Donbass.
Obama’s appeasement-plus policy reached a new low of cynicism when Washington granted Moscow an equal status in monitoring the so-called nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic in Iran. Then it went even lower when John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State after Clinton, spoke of the role that “our Russian partners” were supposed to play in persuading Syrian despot Bashar Al-Assad not to kill his own people with chemical weapons. As the Moscow daily Kommersant wrote at the time, Washington was acknowledging Russia’s status as the principal foreign power in Syria.
Putin lost no time to interpret that as carte blanche for Russian military intervention including the systematic killing of Syrian civilians in air attacks on half a dozen cities, notably Aleppo. Obama’s appeasement-plus caused occasional concern among some of his aides, including successive Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel who argued that American policy might increase Putin’s appetite for further adventures.
Obama’s Defense Intelligence Agency chief General Michael Flynn even resigned in protest to the president’s appeasement-plus policy. Seen from the point of view of US national interests and America’s leadership role on the global scene, Obama has already sold the family silver. It is hard to imagine what else a President Trump could find in the family heirloom to offer as gift to Vladimir Putin.