As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Moscow for talks with the Russian government – no longer scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin himself – international observers have expressed growing concern of a showdown between two of the world’s major political powers.
Those who criticize President Donald Trump for ordering airstrikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a longtime ally of Russia’s, warn that a prolonged war in the Middle East is not in America’s best interests. Even more concerning, many contend, is a prolonged war in the Middle East with the potential of direct conflict with Russia.
Trump now finds himself in the bizarre position of an overnight mainstream media about-face. Those who warn Trump’s relationship with Russia is too contentious, on many prior occasions participated in the chorus of invective accusing Trump of being too close to Russia, of indulging a “bromance” and “love story” with Putin. At one point during the 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic campaign platform almost exclusively became a warning that a President Trump would allow the nefarious Putin to take over the world. Soundly defeated, the Democrats alleged that Putin had “hacked” the election on Trump’s behalf.
Neither critics nor supporters of Trump’s decision to confront Russia can adequately predict what Russia will do to save face following last week’s humiliation, because Putin himself has never faced such a challenge since becoming Prime Minister in 1999. Neither presidents George W. Bush nor Barack Obama responded to Putin’s belligerence on the world stage with decisive action. On the contrary, both attempted to establish friendly personal relations, treating Putin as a democratic leader with no ambition beyond his borders.
Trump’s foreign policy, despite months of mainstream media coverage arguing the contrary, is to treat Putin’s Russia as a rogue state until it proves otherwise by eschewing Assad. How Putin will respond to such austere American action is anyone’s guess – not because Putin is an unpredictable political figure, but because no American president before Trump had tested just how predictable he would be under pressure.
Both Bush and Obama have attempted to rewrite their histories with Putin. During a recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Bush claimed to have a “contentious relationship” with Putin. He warned that Putin would “push and push and push until someone stands up to him.”
During the Bush era, Putin indeed pushed and pushed, with the American president responding with timid diplomacy. The relationship began on a high note mocked the world over: a 2001 meeting in which Bush declared that he had “looked the man [Putin] in the eye… [and] was able to get a sense of his soul.”
“I found him to be very straight-forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue,” Bush said of his first meeting with Putin.
By 2007, towards the end of Putin’s first term as President, Reuters reported that “the situation got so bad last month that Putin seemed to compare U.S. foreign policy to that of the Third Reich,” outraged at American action to protect allies in Eastern Europe. Bush responded to Putin’s belligerence by inviting him for “lobster rolls and handshakes” at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. The elder Bush, former president George H.W. Bush, approved of his son’s strategy, telling a local television station in Maine, “fishing is good for the soul.”
A year later, Russia invaded Georgia. Claiming that Georgian troops had initiated a military operation against ethnic Russians in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin committed to helping the separatist cause there. President Bush referred to the initiative as a “dangerous escalation” and expressed his displeasure with Dmitry Medvedev, now president as Putin once again assumed the Prime Minister role.
Aside from that phone call, however, the American president appeared more preoccupied with his role as “fan-in-chief” at the Beijing Olympics than confronting Russia in Georgia, a country so pro-American it boasts a statue of Ronald Reagan in its capital.
Putin himself, while no longer president, blamed Bush for the war Russia had started in Georgia, claiming Bush had ordered military activity to benefit Sen. John McCain’s presidential run. If this accusation sounds familiar, it is because Putin made a very similar claim today, calling an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians by the Assad regime a “false flag” operation meant to benefit the Trump administration.
With a career so devoid of bonafide, high-stakes challenges from America, Putin boasts a thin playbook.
Thanks almost exclusively to an ambitious PR war in the west by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili, tensions simmered in Georgia. South Ossetia remains occupied by Russia, however, and Russian parliamentarians have openly expressed a will to annex it.
The Obama era, astoundingly, proved even more beneficial to the Russian regime. Putin assumed the presidency again in 2012 as Obama began his second term.
The Obama administration began their diplomatic relationship with Russia – the famous “Russia reset” – on a sour note. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s notorious sense of humor baffled her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as she handed him a button with the word “overcharged” on it in Russian (the button should have read “reset.” Get it?).
In their early encounters, President Obama publicly praised Putin’s “extraordinary work… on behalf of the Russian people.” In private, he reportedly tolerated Putin’s hours-long diatribe about the greatness of Russia.
Speaking to Medvedev, Obama was even more deferent as both the Russian and American president’s first terms wound to a close. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” Obama told Medvedev in South Korea, a message caught on a hot pic.
“I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Medvedev responded.
The Obama administration “condemned” the annexation of Crimea and involved the Russian government in the probe into the downing of MH-17, thereby ensuring the Russians would be in charge of investigating pro-Russian rebels.
As the White House failed to assert itself in eastern Europe, Russian officials were expanding their influence deep into Syria. Medvedev and Putin appeared to take Obama’s 2012 “red line” remarks – threatening U.S. action against the Assad regime should it use chemical weapons against civilians – as an opportunity to usurp American influence in the region.
On the anniversary of the “red line” speech, Assad’s troops killed over 200 people in a chemical weapons attack with impunity. Secretary of State John Kerry offered Assad the opportunity to evade consequences by giving up his chemical weapons arsenal shortly thereafter, a move one U.S. official referred to as a “major goof.”
Putin, once again president, eagerly called Kerry’s bluff, and shortly thereafter Russia vouched for Assad, claiming Damascus had given up all its chemical weapons.
“We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” Kerry boasted at the time. “I get a call from Lavrov an hour and a half later saying, ‘That’s a great idea. We should be pursuing that. Why don’t we sit down and talk and see if we can get that done?’ And within days, we got it done.”
History proved this claim untrue last week, when Assad forces reportedly used chemical weapons once again.
By then, Russia had become heavily involved in Syria, though Russian forces only began executing bombing runs in 2015, the day after Putin discussed Syria with Obama in an in-person meeting. A month later, Putin was joking that the Obama administration had “mush for brains.” Another month, and international NGOs were calling the use of chemical weapons in Syria “routine.”
The Obama administration continued to claim the “red line” on chemical weapons use was still viable. If true today, the world has the Trump administration to thank for it.
Since Trump’s airstrikes on an Assad base in Syria, the Kremlin has warned of an increased risk of confrontation with American troops in the region and threatened to shut down a “deconfliction line” the two countries keep to avoid attacking each other in Syria (the Pentagon has neither confirmed nor denied that the line no longer exists). Putin may respond with further actions to punish the Trump administration and maintain control of the Syrian Civil War; he may, in response to his first major challenge from Washington, abandon the Assad regime and refocus his efforts in the region towards other war zones like Libya and Afghanistan. What is certain is that Trump has brought Putin to a fork in the road he has never before encountered, and a chance to define himself as either statesman or madman.