It began in his first term as president when he visited Eastern Europe and gave a series of speeches to make the point: the countries that had once required America’s protection from a Soviet superpower were now emerging democracies and fledgling free-market success stories. They could take care of themselves militarily in future. The interceptor missiles that had been scheduled to arrive in Poland, courtesy of the US, would not be delivered. Although they had never been intended as any sort of threat against Moscow, Obama still allowed this move to be seen as part of his “reset” of relations with post-Soviet Russia.
At home, this was presented as a refusal to pay forever for the protection of a Europe that was no longer threatened by aggressive Communism. The disproportionate share of the Nato budget that the US had been stumping up could be better spent on the kind of welfare and health provision that Europeans took for granted.
All this suited Putin’s self-image as a global strongman perfectly. America and the West had definitively won the Cold War, and were now apparently unconcerned that they might lose the peace. Putin saw clearly that no one would stand in his way when he launched his irredentist assault on eastern Ukraine. Not only did he annex Crimea but the forces he had unleashed shot a civilian airliner out of the sky – which might have been seen as a contemporary sinking of the Lusitania. He went from triumph to triumph, playing hard-faced poker against Washington’s half-hearted attempt at chess. In the Middle East, Obama’s White House scarcely shows any interest now that it is no longer dependent on the region for oil. It can only be roused to do what is minimally required to keep Americans safe from Isil terrorism.