There’s a major flaw in the view of the United States held by Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia and now the proud owner of Crimea. And that is, that Vladimir Vladimirovich conflates the Cold War, the Bill Clinton administration, the George W. Bush administration, and President Obama’s own policies—with no recognition that, at least since 2009, the United States has tried, imperfectly, to improve relations with Russia.
Looking back on U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the USSR, there’s a lot of blame that falls on the United States: a big U.S. military buildup since the late 1990s, unilateral overseas adventures by Clinton and Bush in Kosovo and Iraq, the expansion of NATO to include various Eastern European nations (and efforts to have Ukraine and Georgia join, too), and more. Perhaps US-Russian relations reached a low point—at least before the turmoil in Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea—in 2008, when the two nations quarreled over Russia's military action in Georgia.
To be fair, however, under Obama the United States sought to “reset” relations with Moscow, appealing to Russia’s capitalist class to mesh with Western Europe, the European Union, the United States and various international economic bodies. As Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia until a few weeks ago, wrote in the New York Times today:
In my first years in government, I witnessed [then-] President Medvedev cooperating with President Obama on issues of mutual benefit—a new Start treaty, new sanctions against Iran, new supply routes through Russia to our soldiers in Afghanistan and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. These results of the “reset” advanced several American vital national interests. The American post-Cold War policy of engagement and integration, practiced by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, appeared to be working again.
Indeed, the United States believed that it could bypass Putin, in a way, and court Medvedev. A French diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks under Medvedev’s presidency suggested “cultivating relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in the hope that he can become a leader independent of Vladimir Putin.” If that was the plan, it was based on faulty intelligence, since Medvedev had no real political base and was, it appears, all along a cats’-paw for Putin—who, as prime minister under President Medvedev, planned to retake the presidency once again. And the more hawkish elements of the Obama administration, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were far more skeptical of Putin than was President Obama, who seems sincerely to have believed that the United States and Russia, even under Putin, could find common ground.
The U.S.-NATO military campaign against Libya certainly irked Putin, but Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was hardly a major ally of Moscow’s, and the Russians always viewed Qaddafi suspiciously, as did the USSR in the 1970s and ‘80s. But by putting NATO expansion to Ukraine an Georgia on hold, by backing off on missile defense systems in eastern Europe, by seeking to conclude new strategic arms accords with Russia, by working with Russia on a UN-backed plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, by cooperating with Russia in ongoing talks between Iran and the P5+1, the United States under Obama could hardly be compared to George W. Bush’s neoconservative, go-it-alone, you're-with-us-or-you're-against-us policies abroad. By removing the last of American troops from Iraq, by pledging to remove all or nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, by making major cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, and by announcing a “pivot” to Asia—which, if anything, is focused on containing China, not Russia—Obama was sending signal after signal to Russia that Washington was willing to play ball.
Obama’s moderation vis-à-vis Russia continues even after the takeover of Crimea. Despite fierce pressure from hawks—for the latest, see the open letter to Obama from virtually the entire neoconservative movement calling on the president to “strengthen Ukraine, isolate Russia, and strengthen NATO”—Obama has responded judiciously to the Russia-Crimea action so far, imposing a very limited set of sanctions and avoiding anthing like Cold War rhetoric. Hopefully, that means that the White House is still committed to diplomacy with Russia, and to continuing business-as-usual over Iran, Syria, and other hot spots.
But all bets are off if Russia moves into eastern Ukraine and/or Moldova, or acts elsewhere along its periphery in supposed defense of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking cities of the former USSR. In that case, the hawks will almost certainly get what they want.
In the wake of 9/11, just about everyone hawkish, authoritarian, and police- and surveillance minded politician, agency and authority in the United States hauled out their wish list and used the 9/11 attacks to justify getting what they wanted: more money for the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence agencies, an expanded FBI counterintelligence division, new domestic powers through the Patriot Act and other laws, more money for police intelligence units, and so on. So today are the same folks using the Crimea events to appeal to Obama for their own, updated laundry lists: more money for defense, expanding NATO, reinstalling missiles in eastern Europe, more military aid to Poland, the Baltic countries, and other former USSR nations, boosting military spending in Europe, and even semi-irrelevant issues such as accelerating U.S. exports of natural gas to compete with Russia in Europe and approving the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
For now, Obama can resist most or all of that pressure. But if Putin moves beyond Crimea militarily, he’ll cave in to the hawks on most of what they want—and the world will be launched into, well, not a Cold War exactly, but a prolonged, hostile relationship with Moscow that will probably only end when Putin is toppled by a domestic, democratic movement.