Washington’s Putin Obsession

By Michael Brenner, Professor of International Affairs Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh

Official Washington is obsessed with Vladimir Putin.

So, too, is America’s entire political class. President Obama, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in October, stated without qualification that “In a world that left the age of empire behind, we see Russia attempting to recover lost glory through force….If Russia continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, it may be popular at home. It may fuel nationalist fervor for a time. Over time, it’s also going to diminish its stature and make its borders less secure.“[1]   Secretary of Defense Ashton Crater seconded the President, claiming that “with its violations of Ukrainian and Georgian territorial integrity, its unprofessional behavior in the air, in space, and in cyberspace, as well as its nuclear saber rattling – all have demonstrated that Russia has clear ambition to erode the principled international order.”[2]

The Pentagon has put Russia at the top of its list of national security threats – four places above the Islamic State, responding with its comprehensive plan to expand the deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles and troops on rotating assignment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe. A battery of policy papers emanating from Washington’s eminent think tanks paint a dire picture of Russia’s intentions and call for a more forceful American response in Europe and in Syria. Their timing is indicative of an orchestrated campaign to press the next incumbent in the White House to act on her tough rhetoric and to supplant Obama’s allegedly meek approach with a more confrontational strategy. Within the wider foreign policy community, there is no significant opposition voiced to this chest-thumping. The same holds for political circles generally.
To make sense of this phenomenon, we need to step back and look at the evolution of American strategic thinking since the Cold War’s end.  Most striking is the continuity and uniformity. Six successive administrations headed by four different Presidents have dedicated America to accomplishing the same ends. They have been: promote the extension of a globalized world economy grounded on neo-liberal principles are far as possible; foster democratic political systems for the long-term headed by leaders sympathetic to Washington’s philosophy and leadership; stress the latter when forced to choose in the short-term; isolate and bring down any government that actively resists this campaign; and maintain the United States’ dominant position as rule-setter in international organizations.

The horror of 9/11 forced some modification in the modus of this strategy insofar as it announced a unique threat which the country’s political leadership countered by calling for the aggressive deployment of military force under the rubric of the “war on terror.” Its application only became divisive when advertised deceitfully and led to embarrassing failure – in Iraq. The collective effort to blur that reality, along with the implicit agreement to renounce the idea of holding anyone or group accountable, has voided the experience of any lessons learned. Once accomplished, the mission of induced amnesia managed to dull the whole experience in the evanescent collective American memory; the “war on terror” has proceeded uninterrupted on the rails laid down in 2001.

The much publicized Obama deviations from the Bush approach do not amount to much. Its foundation pillars remain firmly in place. True, Obama has not repeated the Iraq intervention. But in fact there has been no opportunity or plausible reason to repeat it. To take military action against Iran was always irrational since any threat from that quarter was intangible and indirect. Too, the consequences would be intolerable for all but the hard-core devotees of American expansionism.

Elsewhere, America has moved aggressively using drones, Special Forces and political pressure to suppress a wide range of “bad guys” who may or may not be terrorists, or threats to the U.S. They include Mali, Chad, Niger, Libya, Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq-again, Syria, as well as those old stand-byes Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Libya, Obama managed to create chaos on a scale that even exceeds Iraq without putting American boots on the ground. A few are there now that the country has become a Club Med for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups of native origin.

All of these positions are approved by nearly the entire foreign policy establishment – Republican or Democratic. Only Syria is an exception insofar as there are those who would like to see a large American military engagement to unseat Assad. There is a lot of hot air blown on this question. However, the reality is that there is no method for the United States to intervene without paving the way for a Salafist takeover of the country. That is not an outcome which any incumbent of the White House could tolerate. Moreover, Americans are not prepared for a repeat performance of Iraq.  Public aversion to new military actions should not be interpreted as some kind of psychological retrenchment from international engagements or activism abroad. Most Americans remain wedded to the idea that the nation has global obligations and interests that require it to exert influence and confront challengers.

What stands out from this summary review is the degree of consensus among those who pay attention to foreign policy and especially among those who may hold positions of responsibility in a new administration. Given that paramount reality, there is little reason to expect more than slight modifications in existing policies. The fact that those policies are sterile and/or manifest failures does not change that logic. For independent thinking is a rarity these days; the mainstream media (MSM) have set aside all skeptical instincts out of timidity, careerism and profit maximizing; and, on the Middle East, there are powerful domestic political interests that press hard, in private as well as public, in favor of the status quo fortified by more muscle applied to Iran and Syria. None of this is altered by Donald Trump’s election.
The Strategic Context
Where does Russia fit into this picture? During the Yeltsin years, Russia was viewed as a non-factor in the broad strategic picture. It had neither the capability nor the will to assert itself. That suited Washington perfectly. It allowed the United States to pursue its program of unifying all of Europe on its own preferred terms; it removed Moscow as a possible source of obstruction in the European geo-political arena, the United Nations Security Council, and in the Middle East; and it implicitly confirmed the ideological political triumph in the Cold War that had cleared the way to implementing the American design for arranging the affairs of the world.

That rosy picture began to change with the rise to power of Putin. It was soon apparent that he was a leader of a different breed, devoted to building a strong state – a project with a more nationalistic approach to the country’s external relations following in its train. The full implications became apparent in 2008 in the Ossetia crisis. We should recall that, at the time, the Bush administration was pushing hard for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. A fence was to be built around Russia to ensure that it remained diminished and constrained – whatever was happening internally. The American encouraged and facilitated attack on Southern Ossetia was conceived as a step toward that goal – a step whose repercussions were unforeseen.

The fierceness of Putin’s response surprised Washington despite clear signs that he would not accept such a fait accompli. By deed as well as in articulate words, Putin had thrown down the gauntlet. The message was unmistakable: Russia could not submit to the marginal place and passive role that it had been assigned by Washington-led West. It would use all the means at its disposal to thwart the American project unless there were an accommodation of Russia’s interests and ideas for managing the global system. The United States, in turn, labelled Russia as unreasonably obstinate – an obstructionist. Worse, it progressively came to be viewed as a latent threat to specific American aims.
The New Cold War

2008 was the starting point of the New Cold War. Everything that has followed – from Ukraine to Syria to military maneuvers – flowed logically from the incompatibility of American and Russian world views there demonstrated. The 2014 coup in Kiev transformed the latent into the manifest. Putin’s intervention in Syria eighteen months later gave it concrete meaning in a wider scope.

Washington under Bush had pressed very hard for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO– prevented only by hesitations from some West European governments (Germany above all) sensitive to Russia’s concerns about being encircled.  The United States remains officially committed to that expansion of NATO to this day. From Moscow’s vantage point, NATO in the post-Cold War era looks to have as its main purpose the exclusion of Russia from the main arena of European affairs. That dismay has been ignored or rejected. On Russia, as on Syria, there exists a uniformity of thinking among American political elites grounded in a simplistic narrative wherein we wear the white hats and Putin is depicted as wearing a black hat with the discernible imprint of a Red Star. However divorced from reality these images are, they are taken as given truths.

Now, tensions between Moscow and the West have risen to dangerous levels. Most in American policy circles see that as an inescapable outgrowth of Putin’s audacious designs and reckless methods. Indeed, some welcome it – arguing that Russia’s reversion to nationalism and autocracy makes it inherently hostile to the West and its enlightened vision of the international order. Prominent among them are those who since 1991 have set as a cardinal national goal the permanent subordination of Russia within international structures shaped and directed by the West. Putin’s balking cast him as an enemy of the United States. For by this line of thinking, peace and stability in Europe are predicated on winning this struggle. That means isolation, restricting Russian influence of any kind anywhere on the continent or in the Middle East, and eventually supplanting him with someone more pliable who is prepared to accept that country’s predestined place in the envisaged Pax Americana.  Political developments in the Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea, the fighting in the Donetsk basin have created the occasion for this contest to take on dimensions of a full-blown geopolitical conflict.

Obama personally has committed the United States to as tough a line on Russia as a rational person could. If truth be told, American policy-makers were far more comfortable with Yeltsin’s enfeebled, declining, oligarch ridden and compliant Russia than they have been with Putin’s Russia. For Donald Trump, history doesn’t exist. It does for those who will be advising him; none of them have dovish DNA.

The depth of American commitment to putting Putin’s Russia in its place is evinced by the manner in which it has segregated the Russia dossier from thinking about the relationship with China. Objectively speaking, Russia is important for three reasons: it is a major presence in the European geopolitical space; it has considerable military capability along with a demonstrated will to deploy it; and it is contiguous to and experienced in the greater Middle East where it has serious national interests. However, Russia today is not the global power that it was in Soviet days.

China, by comparison, is well on its way to becoming a world power. It has now and is expanding all of the requisite assets: economic, military and political. China also has an ancient history of seeing itself as the center of the world (The Middle Kingdom) that is closely associated with its self-image of exceptionalism and superiority. Hence, every reasonable observer recognizes that the future shape of world affairs will be determined primarily by the terms of an evolving relationship between the United States and China. Everything else we do should take that into account.

The inner logic of this situation points to the conclusion that Washington should bend its efforts toward the maintenance of as cordial relations with other powers as possible, and to avoid unnecessarily alienating or antagonizing them. Its credibility and authority, as well as its tangible power, dictate that it follow that maxim. In regard to Russia, Washington is doing the exact opposite. Instead, it seems inclined to pick fights wherever the opportunity presents itself – especially with Moscow. That is a sign of insecurity – not confidence. It is counter-productive behavior from the perspective of long-term national interests. It serves emotional needs rather than political needs. It perpetuates an unthinking commitment to an unrealistic conception of what the United States is, and what it can accomplish in the world – one that is becoming a growing liability as the disparity widens between illusion and reality.

The real question is not whether American policy toward Russia will become more belligerent (it cannot without risking outright war). Rather, it is: will there be persons in the new administration ready to take a dispassionate view of Russia and move us off the current confrontational track? At the moment, there is no evidence of any. Indeed, the atmosphere is redolent of the 1950s in its stark imagery, self-righteousness, bellicosity and Manichean perspective. The only thing missing is a justification.

Will a President Trump and his administration, be cognizant of the imperative to engage in this kind of probing reappraisal ? We see no indications of such an inclination. Indeed, quite the opposite.

To elaborate on this answer, let us note two cardinal differences between the New Cold War and the Old Cold War. First, the current high decibel condemnation of Moscow’s alleged machinations is more an elite phenomenon, led by the security Establishment, than it is an expression of popular outrage. The negative view of Russia, and Putin personally, so assiduously cultivated by Obama, the wider political class and the MSM does not translate into a pervasive fear or hatred. The dread evoked by the Red Menace that marked the Cold War remains dormant. (That is even true in Europe as well except for the Poles and the Baltics). That state of sentiment allows Washington to be rhetorically aggressive, and to take the much publicized steps of building up NATO forces around Russia’s periphery. However, any action that is seen as actually raising a risk of direct conflict will be hard for the White House to sell.

The other noteworthy difference from the original Cold War is that today the two parties are operating in highly fluid diplomatic environment where there are no agreed rules of the road, no recognized political boundary markers and wherein the United States as the manifestly dominant power does not accept either the legitimacy or inevitably of Russia’s presumption to the status of a consequential, Independent minded power. Uncertainty, therefore, is the hallmark of their relationship – and the occasions for misunderstanding and accidents grow accordingly.

Syria encapsulates that state of affairs. The strains engendered by Russia’s intervention stem not just from their divergent objectives or Washington’s irritation at Putin’s impromptu party-crashing. Those elements of friction were exacerbated and magnified by the combination of American shock at Putin’s bold action and both parties’ hazy notion of what a satisfactory outcome might look like. The surprise in Washington was two-fold: one, the Obama people had no idea that Moscow was planning such a decisive move (yet another addition to the long list of Intelligence failures); and, two, the skill and technical attributes on display. Power project of this kind was not visualized.

It has shaken up the Pentagon, Obama’s foreign policy team, and the entire Washington foreign policy community. The over-reaction is explainable – in part – by the shock factor. Over time, unease has crystallized into antagonism. Russia, seen through a glass darkly, now appears as an existential threat – that is, a threat to American strategic purposes by its very existence and political persona.

The sudden Russian intervention into Syria exacerbates every one of the contradictory elements in Washington’s various, unintegrated Middle East policies. That is one reason for the unexpected moves by Putin are deeply unsettling and resented. They not only add a major variable, but that factor also involves a self-willed player ready and able to take initiatives which are not predictable or easy to counter. An already roiled field of action is thereby rendered even more turbulent by orders of magnitude. Another, related reason is that since the United States has no comprehensive strategy, the repercussions of the Russian actions, military and political, are generating a piecemeal reaction that makes it almost impossible to gain any intellectual or diplomatic traction in each individual policy sphere.

The highly effective air campaign, coupled with the Russian coordinated ground campaign, has transformed the situation both militarily and politically. Yet, one would hardly notice that salient truth by limiting oneself to American sources. There has been a virtual blackout about those accomplishments. Rather, we are submitted to a steady drumbeat of criticism that Russia has not concentrated on ISIL (as if al Qaeda were now a “good guy” and as if Moscow has not taken the initiative in striking at ISIL’s critical oil commerce, in collaboration with Turkey, which for a year American forces studiously avoided striking). Exaggerated claims are made daily about civilian casualties from Russian air strikes – without reference to the tens of thousands killed by the US in its military interventions in the region – including its full and tangible backing of Saudi Arabia’s homicidal assault on Yemen. Putin’s diplomatic efforts are derided, and tentative agreements betrayed, although they are more realistic and promising than anything the Obama people have initiated. And Washington spokesmen – President Obama included -trip over themselves to make insulting remarks about Putin personally.

This type of behavior smacks of wishing thinking. That is most evident in the repeated forecasts by American officials and pundits that Putin will be unable to sustain his intervention in Syria because of the negative political fall-out domestically. They affirm with confidence that Russia’s wobbly economy, weakened by sanctions and the drop in oil prices, will suffer from the outlays for military engagement in Syria with intolerable consequences for Russians’ standards of living. The expected outcry of protest would be aggravated by the spectacle of coffins arriving from the battlefront a la Afghanistan. So we are told repeatedly by Samantha Power at the U.N., Deputy National Security Adviser (and novelist) Ben Rhodes, and numerous others. Scenarios of this sort, of course, have no grounding in reality. Facilitated by the ignorance of even senior policy-makers about Russia and Putin, they do serve the purpose of postponing the moment of reckoning with uncongenial realities. “The sky is falling – over there” motif applied to Moscow is immature, irresponsible – and ultimately dangerous.

Taken together, these reactions to Putin’s move into Syria form a pattern of avoidance behavior reflecting insecurity and anxiety about the sudden arrival on the scene of unexpected rival. The kinds of conceptual adjustments indicated by the Russian intervention touch on highly sensitive questions of America’s status and mission in the world  which its political elite is unprepared to engage.  This is foreign policy by emotion, not by logical thought.

A level-headed interpretation of Putin’s policy in Syria would focus on these elements: the failure of Washington to prevent violent jihadist groups from exploiting the rebellion against Assad to advance their own program hostile to the United States; the absence of a countervailing force ideologically acceptable to it; the threat posed to Russia by the expansion of terrorist groups that have Russian affiliates and that have recruited large numbers of fighters from Chechnya and elsewhere; and the opportunity that Putin has opened to find a resolution that squares the circle of our opposing both Assad and the Salafists.

Donald Trump’s remarks about Syria have been disjointed and incoherent. He intrinsic dilemmas remain.



That attitude, though, would entail an agonizing reappraisal of the foundation stones of American strategy set in place over the past fifteen years. It also would require modifying the prevailing view of Russia as an intrinsically aggressive state challenging the West from Ukraine to the Middle East, and of Putin as a thug. The American foreign policy Establishment has no aptitude for doing that. Indeed, they give every appearance of not having read or heard Putin’s elaborate and candid exposition of a world view that could serve as a fruitful basis for a fruitful Russ-American dialogue.[3]

The refusal to engage Putin in a wide-ranging exchange is disheartening and instructive. The Russian leader is rational person, a highly intelligent person, and one who has elaborated at length and in remarkably coherent form his conception of what an international system for the 21st century should look like. He has detailed rules-of-the-road, mechanism and methods. Yet, Obama treats Putin as a pariah.

The sensible approach might be for a President to sit down alone with Putin and introduce an open-ended session by putting to him the question: ‘What do you want, Vladimir?” Putin would be delighted to expound an articulate response. One could hope that Obama himself, or his successor, would go beyond the exclamation: “Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth It’s not even close Period. It’s not even close.” [4]

Donald Trump has suggested that he is ready to sit down with Putin and try to cut a deal. He will be under tremendous pressure not to be so accommodating. As to what he might offer, and what might emerge from such a meeting, is anybody’s guess. We are not in a position to as much as speculate since who do not know who will be briefing or who will be whispering in his ear were such a tete-a-tete to take place.

Finally, a change in the tack that the United States has taken toward Russia requires facing down Republican Congressional leaders and the neo-conservative/R2P (Responsibility to Protect) alliance that agitates fiercely for confrontation with Moscow. The Obama White House has recoiled at the very thought of this last. I personally doubt that Trump has the steel to do that either.

The Trump Revolution
What does this upheaval mean for the country’s foreign policy? No one knows. Certainly not Donald Trump. A lot of time is being spent parsing his millions of words n an effort to discern the direction he will take at home and abroad. That is largely a waste of time. For the views that he has expressed over the past 18 months do not represent settled thought derived from serious consideration of matters. They simply reflect whatever passed through his head as he has caught snippets from Fox News. Trump’s utterances are like jazz scat singing; making sense of these discordant sounds is akin to inferring a strategic doctrine from a wall of graffiti. Now, he confronts reality and the pressures from appointees, supporters, Congressional leaders and host of lobbies keen to impress their agenda on him.

Reality will prevail only exceptionally. Trump is prey to manipulation by the very dogmatists, demagogues and amateurs who have been drawn to him. His own prejudices will be exploited to the hilt. The immediate and most radical impact will be felt at home. The Trump people, in alliance with a Republican Congress, will move swiftly to drive a radical, reactionary program.

Internationally, there likely will be more prudence. The world out there is scary. In good part, that is because it is uncontrollable. Trump himself never expected to be President. He is emotionally as well as intellectually unfit for it. As the election got closer, his nerves began to show the stress – insomnia, loss of appetite, lapses of concentration.

Trump’s cautionary survival instinct will kick in. Language will be more conciliatory, manner less bellicose, metaphors less vivid. The media will oblige by heralding the “new Trump” whose inner statesman was always there albeit hidden during the campaign. Does that imply the “domestication of Donald Trump?” Don’t bet on it.

We all know the old saying: “Everything must seem to change in order that everything remains the same.” Under Trump it should be amended: “Everything must seem to be the same so that all can change.”  “Can” does not mean “will.” We have entered terra incognita without navigational aides or a steady hand at the helm.
The United States ushers in a new Presidency by displacing thousands of the highest Executive Branch officials. It does, though, leave in place the uniformed military and Intelligence services. Moreover, the wide and deep consensus among members of the foreign policy community points to a continuity of both strategy and policies. This conforms to precedent. Viewed in historical perspective, it is striking that shifts by Washington, and hence adjustments required of other powers tend to be marginal.

Think of the Cold War. Premises and purposes varied ever so slightly between Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. Events more than leaders were the primary cause of significant alterations in its modalities. Stalin’s death, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis (above all), Vietnam, the 1973 complex of Middle East crises, the fall of the Shah, Afghanistan and then – finally and conclusively – the arrival in the Kremlin of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The post-Cold War era has witnessed similar continuity. Six successive administrations headed by four different Presidents have dedicated America to accomplishing the same ends. They have been: promote the extension of a globalized world economy grounded on neo-liberal principles are far as possible; foster democratic political systems for the long-term headed by leaders sympathetic to Washington’s philosophy and leadership; stress the latter when forced to choose in the short-term; isolate and bring down any government that actively resists this campaign; and maintain the United States’ dominant position as rule-setter in international organizations.
America’s political class is haunted by what has happened and obsessed by speculation as to its implications. Already the air is full of words intended to explain the former and to offer forecasts about the latter. Most will be premature since a state of emotional turmoil is not conducive to clear thinking. Still, this should not be a complete surprise – except in the sense that the final outcome was not predicated by the pollsters. Being off by a few percentage points in nothing compared to having missed the signs of the bigger phenomenon. The causes of the American political system’s unravelling are multiple and tangled.

a) The failure to pay them due attention was itself symptomatic of a political culture that has degenerated progressively over the past few decades. Public discourse lost coherence, norms that set boundaries of the permissible in content and language were erased, the media lost their way in the maelstrom of the wider, celebrity-focused pop culture, and the leaders of institutions – private, professional, and public – abrogated their responsibilities as de facto custodians of intellectual and political integrity.

b) America’s political elites betrayed the people. Republicans shredded the post-WW II consensus on the parameters of public policy and governance; they abandoned the basic civility that is a critical part of the software of democracy; they indulged the haters and racists of the Tea Party by entering into a merge-and-acquisition deal; and they embraced fully the emerging plutocracy. Democrats ignored the magnitude of the challenge; appeased it out of meekness, lack of belief in their own traditional values, and the promotion of superficial careerists to positions of party leadership; selling out their natural constituents for access to big donors; and then tied their fate to a fatally flawed candidate.

c) America’s elites and political class generally either encouraged or passively acquiesced in the transformation of American society from one characterized by openness, opportunity, economic fairness and decency, and legal equality into one whose distinguishing features are gross inequality, social rigidity, economic insecurity, and privilege for that stratum with the financial means and clout to game the system. Thereby, they discredited the so-called “American Dream” – the package of beliefs so central to both individual self-esteem and the civic contract.

d) America’s elites and political class have worked overtime since 9/11 to sow fear and anxiety among the populace. That has exacerbated greatly the emotional insecurities stemming from the other socio-econ-cultural conditions noted above. The country has been living in state of collective psychosis associated with the “War On Terror.” That has helped to prepare the psychological ground for the irrational behavior that reached its climax with the election of Donald Trump. .

P.S. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IV4IjHz2yIo b


[1] President Barack Obama, Address to the United Nations General Assembly 71st Session, September 20, 2016

[2] Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Speech at Oxford University, September 9, 2016

[3] Putin’s latest formulation was presented in an address to the Valdai International Discussion Club:“The Future in Progress: Shaping The World of Tomorrow” October 27, 2016. See also his address to the Duma on March 10, 2014 at the time of the Crimea crisis.

[4] President Barack Obama State of the Union Address January 12, 2016

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