Encouraging Putin’s Recklessness

After President John F. Kennedy was humiliated at the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961 and bullied by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at their Vienna summit that June, Khrushchev concluded that Kennedy was weak and ineffectual. Consequently, he decided a year later that he could tilt the geopolitical balance of power by installing nuclear weapons in Cuba, nearly igniting a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflagration.

That weakness begets aggression, and that U.S. adversaries in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere routinely test the mettle of U.S. presidents, are lessons that America’s leaders can’t learn often enough. And they’re especially timely in light of recent developments in U.S.-Russian relations, particularly in connection with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s election-meddling and growing recklessness on the world stage.

Under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Putin has suffered far too little both for his attacks on American democracy by trying to influence our 2016 presidential election, and for Russia’s manhandling of U.S. officials, the annexation of Crimea, meddling in Ukraine and attacks on U.S. interests in Syria.

Putin can only feel energized, if not immunized against a decisive U.S. response because of Obama’s meek action during his time in office; the deep divide that has emerged since then between a dismissive Trump and a strong bipartisan contingent in Congress that seeks more aggressive U.S. action; and the multiple Russia-related investigations that are dividing rather than uniting Americans against Putin’s skulduggery.

All of that raises the chances that Putin – who bemoans the Soviet crackup as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, seeks a resurgent Russia and disdains America – will overreach, forcing a U.S. response that sets the two nuclear powers on a course for military confrontation.

As we now know, via a Washington Post expose, Obama learned in early August of last year that Putin was personally involved in an extraordinary cybercampaign to damage then-candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, if possible, elect Trump – hacking Democratic Party computers, dumping thousands of emails through WikiLeaks, penetrating state election systems, distributing fake news stories across social media and so on.

Also that summer, Russian authorities were harassing U.S. officials in extraordinarily brazen fashion. A Russian military helicopter passed closely over the roof of a vehicle that was carrying the U.S. defense attache and other officials, while Russian security forces threw a CIA operative to the ground near the U.S. embassy in Moscow and broke his shoulder.

Obama mulled bold responses, including sanctions that could “crater” Russia’s economy, but he waited until after the election to slap Russia with only modest responses – closing two Russian compounds, expelling 35 suspected Russian spies and imposing largely symbolic economic sanctions.

Meanwhile, Trump over the last year has derided the notion of Russian hacking, dismissed it as a Democratic “hoax” to tarnish his victory, called on Russia to hack Clinton’s private emails, acknowledged that Russia-driven hacking may have occurred and most recently blamed Obama for letting it happen.

Now, Trump is mulling whether to return the two compounds to the Russians without demanding anything in return. With the Senate voting 98-2 for legislation that would impose stronger sanctions on the country and prevent Trump from lifting any of them without congressional approval, the White House is working to block the legislation in the House.

Putin is surely feeling pleased by other high-profile events of recent weeks as well. The president disclosed to top Russian officials classified intelligence from Israel about an Islamic State group plot, said he fired FBI Director James Comey over his Russia-related probe, told Russian officials that Comey’s firing relieved the Russia-related pressure on him and questioned the objectivity of special counsel Robert Mueller.

All of that may help explain why, as U.S. military officials revealed, a Russian jet over the Baltic Sea last week buzzed a U.S. reconnaissance plane in one of the most brazen such incidents since the Cold War.

That reckless maneuver came amid already heightened tensions between U.S. and Russian forces. When the U.S. shot down a Syrian SU-22 warplane after it dropped bombs earlier this month near U.S.-backed fighters who are at war with the Islamic State group, Moscow threatened to retaliate by targeting U.S. and allied aircraft west of the Euphrates River.

So, here’s where we are. In the face of extraordinary Russian behavior, Obama reacted meekly, Trump shows no interest in going further and the White House and Congress are split on the matter. Plus, an emboldened Putin is acting recklessly on a battlefield where U.S. and Russian forces are both engaged.

The more Washington remains divided, the likelier that Putin will go too far. A united Washington, however, might deter him.

Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.


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