After a tumultuous winter in which Russia has been at odds with the West over Crimea, more than two-thirds of Americans say Russia is either unfriendly (44%) or an enemy (24%) to the U.S. This is a departure from sentiments in recent years and a record high since 1999…
This week, Obama said that while he doesn’t foresee the U.S. and Russia entering a new “Cold War,” it is a priority to protect Ukraine. The tensions engendered by Russia’s interest in Crimea have directly affected Americans’ views of Russia and Putin, which are now at historical lows. While it is unclear what the next step will be in the Crimean conflict — and in the region at large — Americans’ dramatically souring views are reminiscent of the Cold War, despite Obama’s dismissals.
By a widening margin, more voters think the United States is weaker since Barack Obama became president. And the highest number in a decade feels the country is less safe than it was before 9/11, according to a Fox News poll released Wednesday…
Some 52 percent of voters think the country is weaker and less powerful today than it was six years ago. That’s three times the 17 percent who say the country is stronger and more powerful. About 3 in 10 think it is unchanged (29 percent)…
The number of Democrats saying the country is stronger now has dropped 11 percentage points: it’s 32 percent today, down from 43 percent in 2013. Twenty-two percent of Democrats say the country is weaker and 44 percent say it is the same…
By a wide 49-31 percent margin, voters think Russian President Vladimir Putin would beat Obama in a game of chess. That includes majorities of Republicans (66 percent) and independents (53 percent) and nearly a third of Democrats (30 percent).
Ahead of the trip, U.S. officials said Mr. Obama would push the EU to ramp up economic pressure on Russia. In a promising first step, Washington put several Putin insiders and a Russian bank on a financial blacklist. Facing resistance from Cyprus, Italy and others, the EU refused to follow. Mr. Obama then yielded to European passivity. On Wednesday he said “sanctions will expand” only if Russia’s leadership “stays on its current course.”
Translation: Mr. Putin can keep Crimea as long as he stops there. But why would he? The U.S. and its allies had promised to exact a cost for his land grab in Ukraine. Instead the response has been “anemic,” as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it on these pages Wednesday. Mr. Putin can logically conclude that the price also wouldn’t be high for an incursion elsewhere in Ukraine or his continuing campaign to destabilize the new government in Kiev.
On security, Mr. Obama usefully confirmed America’s commitment to its allies in the Brussels speech. “What we will do—always—is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies,” he said. Yet he offered no appeal or promise to bolster NATO’s defenses or deploy forces to front-line states. Mr. Putin would have noticed that. Mr. Obama also didn’t make any new commitments to boost missile defenses or announce a halt to the U.S. troop drawdown in Europe…
The message that Kiev will hear in all this is: You’re on your own.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Barack Obama of dramatically weakening the United States’ position in the world, drawing a straight line between Obama’s ever-yielding foreign policy and the increasing troubles around the world.
“Right now, there’s a vacuum,” she told a crowd of more than two thousand attending the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual dinner last night in Washington, D.C. “There’s a vacuum because we’ve decided to lower our voice. We’ve decided to step back. We’ve decided that if we step back and lower our voice, others will lead, other things will fill that vacuum.” Citing Bashar al Assad’s slaughter in Syria, Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, al Qaeda’s triumphant return to Fallujah, Iraq, and China’s nationalist fervor, she concluded: “When America steps back and there is a vacuum, trouble will fill that vacuum.”…
“So, what are we doing? What are we doing when our defense budget is so small that our military starts to tell us that we may not be able to carry out all of the requirements put upon it? What are we doing, when a couple of weeks before Russia invades Crimea we announce that we are going to have an Army smaller than at any time since the Revolutionary – I’m sorry, not the Revolutionary War, but World War II. What are we doing? What are we doing? What are we signaling when we say that America is no longer ready to stand in the defense of freedom?”
“The only thing Putin respects is strength … At this point the Russians are openly laughing at the president,” Cruz, R-Texas, told the Washington Examiner.
Cruz added that Putin’s aggressiveness was “a direct consequence” of the absence of American leadership in the world.
“The weakness and incoherent foreign policy of the Obama administration — from President Obama, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and under Secretary [John] Kerry — has undermined our allies and has strengthened our enemies and put Putin in particular in a far stronger position,” Cruz declared…
“I think Putin’s aggressiveness and act of war against Ukraine is a direct consequence of the absence of U.S. leadership,” Cruz said. “For five years, America has receded from leadership in the world, and into that vacuum has stepped in nations like Russia, Iran, and China — and has made the world a much more dangerous place.”
On the world stage, Vladimir Putin is a bully—and President Obama not only seems clueless about the Russian leader’s inner drive, he embraces his ambivalence. “I’m less interested in motivation,” Obama said Monday in The Hague, “and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold.”
Taken at face value, it’s a disturbing response from a world leader who should lie awake at night concerned about the motivation of U.S. adversaries, whose first meeting of every day involves an intelligence briefing on the motivations of global actors.
It could be that Obama is playing mind games with Putin, looking into the soul that transfixed President Bush 13 years ago and seeing a man whose greatest weakness is parochial hubris. Want to hurt Putin? Say you don’t care about him. In a verbal equivalent of a groin punch, Obama might dismiss Russia as a “regional power” that antagonizes its neighbors “out of weakness.”
But it’s hard to credit Obama with such savvy calculation. I take him at his word: He doesn’t care.
Can NATO help restrain Putin? After NATO was created in 1949, its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, said its purpose was to protect Europe by keeping “the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” The task of keeping Russia out of its neighbors is being complicated by something that would have improved the last century — German passivity. Angela Merkel may think that bringing Barack Obama to a confrontation with Putin is like bringing a knife — a butter knife — to a gun fight.
In a recent New Yorker interview, Obama praised himself for being “comfortable with complexity” and unraveled the Middle East’s complications: “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other.” This is the president as poseur — detached, laconic, arch, almost droll: If only — apologies to Kipling — the lesser breeds without the law would behave.
Obama evidently harbors the surreal hope that Putin will continue to help regarding Syria and Iran. Continue? Putin’s client in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, is winning his civil war. And regarding attempts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Putin’s helpfulness, if not fictitious, has been ineffective.
When Russia proceeded with the annexation of Crimea, the United States and Europe responded with punitive measures that had some economic impact. But they did not by any means “go to the hilt.” Instead, the Americans and Europeans drew an even deeper line in the sand, issuing empty threats of sweeping sanctions if Russia tried to grab more territory in Ukraine…
Such sharp rhetoric from the West could push Mr. Putin to be even more aggressive. That’s because he does not believe that the West would ever treat Russia like Iran and implement robust sanctions that would cut off vast areas of Russia’s economy from the West. As Mr. Putin recently explained, in a globalized world “it’s possible to damage each other — but this would be mutual damage.”
“Isolating Russia” as if it were Iran or North Korea isn’t a threat America can feasibly make good on. Just because Mr. Putin is acting like the leader of a rogue state, his country cannot be considered as such. Russia boasts the world’s eighth-largest economy. Given the exposure of American corporations to Russia, there would be serious pushback from the private sector if Mr. Obama tried to relegate Russia to rogue-state status. The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practice. Otherwise Washington’s credibility will erode further as it walks back its words.
Listening to the conversation among Americans and Europeans at a recent conference here, I came away with a sense that Putin’s gambit will fail over time, if Europe and America remain resolute and patient. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia told me his country is determined now to join the European Union – remaining at peace with its neighbor to the east, if possible, but “absolutely” prepared to fight Russian troops if they invade eastern Ukraine…
Obama gets pounded daily by conservatives, who imply that he invited Putin’s attack on Crimea. But since the crisis began, Obama has actually been quite firm. The U.S. pushed Europe to adopt sanctions by announcing its own first, and NATO made some prompt military moves to reassure Poland and the Baltic states. The U.S. has also moved quietly to help Ukraine cut nearly a third of its Russian gas imports by yearend, and dispense with them entirely by 2020.
The key for Obama is to stay the course he has begun, and to work closely with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hopefully she will be an “iron lady” in this crisis, as she was in dealing with Europe’s economic meltdown. Putin has seemed contemptuous of Obama, but he may be less so if the president is acting in concert with Merkel.