Start with two givens: Vladimir Putin is neither stupid nor content to watch an aging, shrinking, corrupt, and dysfunctional — but still large and nuclear — Russia recede to second- or third-power status. From 2009 to 2015, in one of the most remarkable and Machiavellian efforts in recent strategic history, Putin almost single-handedly parlayed a deserved losing hand into a winning one. He pulled this off by flattering, manipulating, threatening, and outsmarting an inept and politically obsessed Obama administration.
Under the Obama presidency and the tenures of Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Russia made astounding strategic gains — given its intrinsic economic, social, and military weaknesses. The Obama reaction was usually incoherent (Putin was caricatured as a “bored kid in the back of the classroom” or as captive of a macho shtick). After each aggressive Russian act, the administration lectured that “it is not in Russia’s interest to . . . ” — as if Obama knew better than a thuggish Putin what was best for autocratic Russia.
A review of Russian inroads, presented in no particular order, is one of the more depressing chapters in post-war U.S. diplomatic history.
Just watching the film clip of Hillary Clinton presenting the red, plastic Jacuzzi button to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva remains painful, more so than even George W. Bush’s simplistic, reassuring commentary after he looked into Putin’s eyes. Under the Obama-Clinton reset protocols, Russia was freed from even the mild sanctions installed by the Bush administration, imposed for its 2008 Ossetian aggressions. As thanks, in early 2014, Russia outright annexed Crimea. It used its newfound American partnership as an excuse to bully Europe on matters of energy and policy, confident that under American reset, it would face little NATO pushback.