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.