My Weekly Reader, 10 July 2018.

Russo-American relations had deteriorated under the simultaneous presidencies (2000-2008) of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.[1]  However, constitutional term limits meant that Putin could not run for a third consecutive term.  So, he became prime minister while his client, Dmitri Medvedev, became president.  However, all power remained in Putin’s hands.

Barack Obama also became president in 2009.  Obama made one of his campaign advisers on foreign policy, Michael McFaul, head of Russian affairs on the National Security Council.  McFaul then became a principle architect of the Obama administration’s attempt at a “reset” of the relationship with Russia.  The administration hoped to draw Russia toward the American-led international system.

The “reset” began well.  In July 2009, the Russians began allowing the United States to use Russian airspace to airlift supplies to Afghanistan.  In September 2009, the U.S. dropped its plan to build anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe.   In March 2010, the two countries agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. In May 2010, the Russians agreed to impose sanctions on Iran in an effort to get it to end is nuclear weapons program.  The U.S. then lifted sanctions on Russia.

Then things went sour in a hurry.  Why?  There are two answers here.  One answer is that the Libyan Revolution from March to August 2011 began the breakdown.  In this account, the “Arab Spring” spread to Libya; the Gaddafi government set out to suppress it; Libya was a Russian client and Russia had a veto on any Security Council authorization; the Americans got Russia to abstain by limiting the resolution to “protecting civilians,” rather than overthrowing the regime; and then they went ahead and overthrew the regime.[2]

To make matters worse, in Fall 2011, Putin and Medvedev again switched jobs.  This infuriated many Russians.  Demonstrators filled the streets and the unrest continued during the run-up to the March 2012 presidential elections.  It doesn’t seem to have sat too well with Washington either.  In December 2011, Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton declared that “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. “And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.”[3]  This amounted to taking sides against Putin.

Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, prefers another explanation.  He thinks that Putin is “paranoid” and sees the U.S. as “the enemy.”  He is possessed of “fixed and flawed views.”  The Russian people themselves follow Putin because of “a deep societal demand for this kind of autocratic leadership, and this kind of antagonistic relationship with the United States and the West.”

When Secretary of State Clinton made her statement on the Russian elections, the United States had already overthrown the autocratic governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and leaned on the Egyptian military to topple Hosni Mubarak.  The American government-funded National Endowment for Democracy was at work in Russia.  Is it a surprise that Putin is paranoid?  McFaul should have re-read Kennan before he entered government.

[1] Daniel Beer, Does Vladimir Putin Speak for the Russian People?” NYTBR, 8 July 2018, reviewing Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace (2018).

[2] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] See: https://www.cnn.com/2011/12/06/world/europe/russia-elections-clinton/index.html

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