Throughout the 2016 election, the American Left venomously attacked Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. He was rightly accused of diminishing freedom both inside Russia and within neighboring nations, of gobbling up Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and of eyeing the NATO member Baltic states for his next intervention.
But Putin’s real crime, in the eyes of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, was supposedly interfering in the 2016 election by using freelance contractors to hack sensitive Democratic Party communications. Indeed, that latter unproven accusation earned threats of retaliation from the normally live-and-let-live Obama administration that had not been likewise so concerned with Russian territorial aggression. Or as Press Secretary Josh Earnest framed the cyber provocation, “There are a range of responses that are available to the president, and he will consider a response that is proportional.”
During the election, progressives cast Putin, the murderous strongman, and Donald Trump, the populist bully, as kindred spirits who would forge a working alliance that reflected their respective autocratic natures—all at the expense of democratic idealism the world over. Putin in December 2015 had bragged of Trump, “He’s a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt.” Trump sometimes responded in kind, most controversially in September 2016: “Certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country.”
Yet lost in the campaign’s charges and counter-charges over Putin was the recent history of Russian-American relations and an honest appraisal of yet a third likely reset in 2017. Indeed, for presidential administrations, the Russia issue has become like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: each new administration blames predecessors for failure, and promises that it will finally unlock the impasse—without much recognition that autocrats always act autocratically and are a different breed from their democratic rivals.
During the 2008 election, the Obama campaign criticized George W. Bush’s estrangement from Russia. It loudly promised new outreach. Accordingly, in Switzerland in March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously pressed a symbolic plastic red “reset” button to signal the dawn of a new era in America’s relationship with Russia.
Obama and Clinton crafted a narrative that Russian estrangement from the United States had been caused by cowboyish Bush who gratuitously offended other world leaders. Since the damage was supposedly caused by American intransigence, the Democrats reasoned, then the relationship could be remedied by the Americans—through rhetorical outreach from a young, charismatic new President Obama, whose devotion to dialogue, soft power, multilateralism, and human rights would carry the day.
Lost in the excitement was the fact that Obama’s was the second—not the first—reset in recent Russian-American relations. After the August 2008 Russian intrusion into South Ossetia—which may have been triggered by the Bush administration’s suggestions that the United States eventually might support Georgia’s rash, inexperienced, and Westernized president Mikheil Saakashvili in seeking NATO membership—Bush changed course in his relationship to Putin, of whom he had earlier said: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” But following the 2008 Russian invasion, Bush, weakened by low popularity, the Iraq war, and setbacks in the prior 2006 midterm elections, nevertheless sent a few ships to the Black Sea. He airlifted 1,800 Georgian soldiers from Iraq back home, with U.S. fighters escorting Hercules transports, and provided humanitarian aid. He joined with a European coalition to achieve an armistice to the fighting that kept the peace in most of Georgia.
Over the next six years, Obama’s own reset likewise failed, and may have had the effect of emboldening Putin’s 2014 aggressions against Crimea and Ukraine. Not that the Obama version of reset was not first tried in full: Obama himself, in an infamous March 2012 open mic admission to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, seemed more than compliant: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space.” Then Obama whispered, “This is my last election . . . After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Note that Obama was indirectly referring to then-challenger Mitt Romney’s advocacy for a renewal of the original missile defense agendas for Poland and the Czech Republic. That commitment had been recalibrated and then vastly reduced in September 2009 by President Obama, whose efforts were presented as resetting a supposedly needlessly provocative policy of the outgoing President Bush and his Defense Secretary Robert Gates. (As Obama’s own Defense Secretary, Gates would ironically flip back, and suddenly support his new boss’s decision to abrogate the earlier 2008 Bush-Gates-inspired missile shield.)
During the October 22, 2012 presidential debate, Romney was also ridiculed by Obama for suggesting that Russia was still a geopolitical threat: “A few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaeda; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years…”
After the election, Romney later would respond that he had been right. And he and others further argued that after an embarrassed American administration had backed down in summer 2013 from its earlier red-line threat to Syria, Obama ended up inviting the Russians back into the Middle East, more than 40 years after being de facto expelled by the Nixon administration in 1974. Buoyed Russian officials, of course, denied that Putin would ever have seen Obama’s empty Syrian red-line threats as encouragement for their various aggressions. Even more mischievously, in Cheshire-cat style, Russian leaders smiled that they had never found Obama to be particularly weak at all.
Perhaps as compensation, Obama developed a strange habit of publicly insulting Putin while failing to deter him in any meaningful way. In August 2013, Obama explained Putin to the press by contextualizing the Russian President’s sloppy posture: “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom.” In February, Obama added: “He does have a public style where he likes to sit back and look a little bored during the course of joint interviews. My sense is that’s part of his shtick back home politically as wanting to look like the tough guy.”
To much of the world, Obama seemed to be again talking loudly while carrying a twig. Certainly, lecturing Russia about its dismal human rights policies and destabilizing foreign policy, while appearing averse to confrontation, may have earned Putin’s contempt, inspiring him to needle and embarrass Obama wherever and whenever possible.
By 2016, fairly or not, the Obama reset narrative itself had once again been fully reset. Putin was now deemed a bad seed, a roguish threat just as George W. Bush said he was in 2008. Reset had utterly failed, but the reasons for its demise were now declared to be different and largely due to Putin. After being given a chance by Obama to reform and become a good international citizen, he had chosen to take a different and more aggressive and destructive course. In Obama’s revisionist narrative, Bush blew reset #1, but Putin blew reset #2.
Note that Putin acted aggressively first in 2008 when his former friend and once-ascendant Bush had become an unpopular lame-duck president, and then again throughout 2014 after his second reset partner Obama had been embarrassed in Syria, abruptly fled Iraq, was flummoxed by the Libyan and Benghazi misadventures, and was heading toward another midterm defeat.
Enter Donald Trump into this reset drama. Where do we go from here with the President-elect?
Trump is a Jacksonian realist and will probably resist caricaturing Putin the way Obama did and delivering sermons on human rights. As a profit-seeking businessman, he will likely try to cut a deal with the Russians that seeks common interests in a dangerous, cynical world.
What would such horse-trading entail? Trump may likely emphasize Russia’s commonalities with the West, mutual antipathy for radical Islamism, a shared desire to end jihadist terrorism, similar irritation with politically correct sermonizing, and common Christian affinities. Trump might grant that a free Syria is now mostly a dead letter—and that the possibility of a viable third-way alternative to ISIS and Assad was long ago undermined by faux red lines and American inaction, and then consumed in the Syrian holocaust. Trump would hope that Putin would drop further designs on former Soviet territory. He might even seek to woo Putin away from Iran, reminding him that Russia has enough nuclear adversaries and rivals—China, North Korea, Pakistan, U.S. bases—near or on its borders to worry about. Planned increases in energy production and export, beefing up the U.S. military, and deregulating the American economy might give Trump some additional material leverage that Obama lacked when dealing with Putin.
No doubt Trump assumes that his pro-American nationalism will resonate with a nationalist Putin as well. Unspoken is Trump’s likely realpolitik assumption that Russia’s war on human rights within its own borders is unfortunate, but largely out of America’s hands. In any case, faulting Russia in general and Putin in particular for atrocious human rights, while diminishing U.S. hard power and influence, has not proven in the past to offer much leverage on Putin, especially for any president struggling with disapproval at home and disdain abroad.
In sum, Trump will likely argue that as two strong powers led by proud leaders, Russia’s Putin and his America have agendas that need not be mutually exclusive, at least to the point of colliding in war. Whether this third reset will deter Putin from the Baltic states or from allowing a nuclear Iran to lord over the Middle East is an open question. What is not is that Trump, like George W. Bush’s eye-gazing in 2001 and Barack Obama’s plastic red button in 2009, will seek some sort of understanding with Vladimir Putin—albeit with far less idealistic expectations than his sometimes starry-eyed predecessors. But like his predecessors, Trump believes that he alone has the proper formula and temperament to make it work.