Google Analytics

Thursday, June 1, 2023

The New World (Dis)order: PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin


(Image: Wallpaperflare dotcom)

NOTE: This is the second in a five part series.

PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III (July): China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV (August) Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel
PART V (September): The New World (Dis)order


PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin


To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

-Vladimir Putin, 24th February 2022


In February, 2014 after three months of violent and sustained demonstrations in Ukraine, their Russian-leaning President Victor Yanukovych fled Kyiv. The Ukrainian parliament appointed an acting president and prime minister who immediately announced they wanted to bring the country closer to Europe and further away from Russia.


Fearing the Arab Spring could arrive at Moscow’s doorstep and banking on Mr. Obama’s non-interventionism, Mr. Putin invaded Crimea, days after Mr. Yanukovych fled. There is an argument to be made that his decision to annex Crimea was driven less by a desire to rewrite history and more as a strategic maneuver to ensure Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would not get evicted from its base in Sevastopol, as Ukraine drew closer to Europe.


However, regardless of his motivations, what is laughable is Mr. Putin’s claims that Crimea has always been a part of Russia, and that he was liberating its ethnic Russian population. Records in Russian government archives show that Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, under Stalin, and in 1991 Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from the Soviet Union.


At the time Mr. Obama condemned the Russian aggression in Crimea but insisted that the country was a "regional power” and said that Mr. Putin’s actions were a sign of weakness, not strength. He said the US remained committed to defending NATO allies but non-members, like Ukraine, could only count on non-military pressure and sanctions to dissuade Russia from making further territorial encroachments.


Again, Obama rejected the recommendations of his national security advisors and overruled Congress when they tried to send lethal military aid to Ukraine. A senior Obama administration official said that they did not want to “provoke Russia”. 


Unlike after Putin’s invasion of Georgia, this time the international community did impose economic sanctions and target members of Putin’s inner circle. Vice-president Biden vowed the sanctions would leave Russia standing "naked before the world”.


There is no question that the sanctions that were imposed after Putin’s invasion of Crimea hurt Russia’s economy. However, it is hard to pinpoint the direct impact they had because Russia retaliated by issuing a ban on food imports from Western nations, which contributed to rising food prices and inflation at home. Also, a drop in oil prices that occurred around the same time, put downward pressure on the Rouble. The combined effect of sanctions and these events helped exacerbate underlying weaknesses in the Russian economy.


The more important thing that happened is that Mr. Putin took on the post-Crimea sanctions as a challenge and decided to enact measures that would make the Russian economy less reliant on the West and sanction-proof in the future. 


Russia grew its foreign currency reserves to $631 billion, the fourth largest in the world. They adopted a new fiscal policy, cutting expenses to enable greater financial stability and withstand future volatility. They created their own payment system, in the event the West blocked them from SWIFT. They invested in homegrown food production to become self-reliant and far less dependent on imports from the West. 


All these measures should have been a clear indication to the West that Mr. Putin’s territorial ambitions were far from satiated. Also, Mr. Putin believed he held the ultimate trump card - he supplied 40% of Europe’s energy and the Georgian and Crimean invasions had not deterred Europe’s thirst for Russian oil.


From Putin’s perspective, it was a victory. The post-Crimea sanctions caused pain, but they did not cripple Russia or leave her standing "naked before the world”. If we reviewed his tally sheet, we would see that he achieved his goals in Georgia, annexed Crimea without a shot being fired and occupied the Donbas with scant resistance and with no consequences from NATO or the US. In addition, his popularity soared back home with the majority of Russians supporting the annexation of Crimea.


On the heels of his annexation and illegal occupation of Crimea, confident the U.S. would again not intervene militarily, an emboldened Putin sent Russian troops to Syria in 2015. It was Russia's intervention that made the difference and helped turned the tide in favour of Assad’s regime. 


Obama’s non-intervention in Syria had given Mr. Putin an opportunity to get a foothold in the Middle East. This was something Russia had wanted since the end of the Cold War, and now they were able to do it while sidelining America.


The fact is that every post-Cold War US President has underestimated Mr. Putin and failed to understand his motivations. A fundamental miscalculation of successive administrations is that unlike in democracies, where we think in four or five year terms, autocrats play the long game and plan their moves over decades, not over election cycles.

 

In 2001, Bush famously said that he had looked in Putin’s eyes and had,“seen his soul” and found him to be “very straightforward and trustworthy”. Bush was partly right because in 2008, Putin told Bush in a straightforward way during a one-on-one meeting that Ukraine was not a real country, a comment the US President laughed off.


President Obama, like his predecessor, believed he could tame Mr. Putin and declared the infamous Russia ‘reset,’ after taking office in 2009. This foreign policy reboot was launched with much fanfare when Hillary Clinton presented Sergei Lavrov with a cartoonish “reset” button which misspelled the word in Russian. 


Mr. Obama scrapped plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration claimed it was due to a reduced threat from Iran and technological challenges, but it was widely seen as a move to appease Mr. Putin in order to win Russian support for a vote in the UN Security Council. The vote would support tougher sanctions on Iran and bring them to the negotiating table for the deal Mr Obama sought.


Obama’s most memorable quip, reinforcing his naivety about Russia, came in the form of his response to Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential debate. After candidate Romney stated that Russia remained one of America’s greatest national security threats, Obama retorted, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years”.


To understand Mr. Putin, we have to go back to the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. His worldview was formed during this time, while he was in the KGB. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, he was stationed in Dresden, Germany. He witnessed first-hand how leaders and systems could be toppled when citizens grew too powerful. While Putin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had been in decline, he believed it was ailing due to paralysis of power and the frailty of political elites.


He wrote in his autobiography that after his office was surrounded by protestors threatening to storm the building, he called the Red Army’s German tank unit, stationed nearby, and asked them for protection. They said they could not do anything without orders from Moscow. They had reached out but no orders came. The words “Moscow is silent” are said to have haunted Putin his whole life, and shaped his worldview. 


Putin watched helplessly as everything he spent years building collapsed in the blink of an eye. First, East Germany disappeared when it was reintegrated into the West, and then the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated. In his mind, this was a direct result of the weakness of its current leadership.

 

Mr. Putin’s ambition has always been to rebuild the Russian Empire and unite all the people displaced after its collapse. He has publicly stated these aims many times. In a 2005 address to the Russian Duma, he said ”…the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”


In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference he started by asking the audience not to get angry, or turn on the red light because his remarks might seem “polemical, pointed or inexact”. Then he launched into a tirade about United States “unipolar” global domination after the Cold War and how America’s “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems” but created more conflict and human tragedy. 


Alluding to the US invasion of Iraq he said “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law” and added that  “… the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.” “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”


He expressed concerns about NATO’s expansion, saying it had less to do with “modernization” or “ensuring security” and was a “serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” He spoke of a new world order that would upend the current one. 


He pointed to the fact that the combined GDP of India and China was greater than the U.S. and that the BRICs - Brazil, Russia, India and China - cumulative GDP surpassed that of the EU. He warned that the “economic potential” of these new centers of power would soon translate into political influence”.


Mr. Putin is convinced that the West actively works to undermine Russia, inflicting their woke, weak and morally bankrupt ideology to foment and finance colour revolutions across former Soviet republics. We saw this paranoia on display when Mr. Putin rapidly deployed “peacekeeping” troops as part of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to quell growing unrest in Kazakhstan last year.


In March 2014, Mr. Putin made a speech to both houses of parliament about the annexation of Crimea. He claimed, after holding an illegal referendum, that 96% of people had voted in favour of reuniting with Russia. In the same speech, he put the West on notice that Russia would be staking further territorial claims. 


Then in July, 2021 he laid out his mission in a 5,000 word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he argued that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are all descendants from Ancient Rus. That they are still bound by a common language and faith. According to his version of history, Ukraine has never been a sovereign nation, except for a few times when it tried and failed to become an independent state.


He accused the West of using Ukraine to undermine Russia and made false claims about Zelensky’s government actively supporting “Neo-Nazi’s” and burning people alive in Odessa. He concluded that the sovereignty of Ukraine was only possible in partnership with Russia and declared “we are one people.”


Mr. Putin has never hidden his ambitions to restore Russian greatness which he is convinced was robbed by the West, making it hard to believe that he will stop at Ukraine, even though his invasion had not gone according to plan. 


He has made it amply clear that until every former Soviet republic is fully subservient or part of Russia, Russia's very existence is threatened. Along the way he seeks to diminish US influence in Europe, degrade NATO and form a new anti-US global alliance.


There is no question that Mr. Putin’s and his generals badly miscalculated the Ukrainian invasion on every front. They underestimated the level of resistance from a disciplined and well-trained Ukrainian army, while overestimating the capability of their own forces. The biggest surprise , which nobody saw coming, was President Zelensky’s Churchillian rise and his ability to rally not just his fellow countrywomen, but the U.S. and Europe. 


With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine not going according to plan, some observers believe it might dissuade him from achieving his goals and lead him to look for an off-ramp. I disagree. 


Despite the Russian army’s battlefield humiliation, Mr. Putin remains in a strong position to finance his war because the Russian economy, while it did wobble, is far from hobbled. In fact, it weathered the sanction storm better than anyone predicted. 


Russian economic output contracted a mere 2.1% in 2022, surprising some economists who had expected a catastrophic meltdown. Meanwhile, the war has damaged billions of dollars of infrastructure and caused the Ukrainian economy to shrink by more than 30% in 2022.


An independent poll taken immediately after the invasion found that 58% of Russians approved of Putin’s military action, while 23% opposed it. Most people expected support to drop as the average Russian began to feel the day-to-day pain of Western sanctions and losses on the battlefield mounted, but the opposite has transpired with support for the war hardening and less than one fifth of Russians now opposing it. 


But Russian support must be taken with a bag of salt because Mr. Putin has unleashed a wave of repression with new laws that punish people who spread misinformation. Sharing “false information" includes using the word ‘war’, for which people can face up to 15 years in prison. 


Public works deemed critical of the war have resulted in exhibits being torn down and replaced with state propaganda. Actors, writers and artists have been hounded and forced out of jobs. Curricula in schools and universities have been changed, and students are being taught to report teachers who talk of peace, and Russians are encouraged to snitch on anyone who opposes the war.


A single father was recently sentenced to three years in prison for social media posts that came to light after his daughter made a drawing for a school project with the words “No to War” under the picture. The thirteen year old girl has been placed in a state orphanage, after her father fled arrest.


In addition, the Russian government is doling out cash payments in the country’s most impoverished regions to buy public support, and brainwashing the population. Every media outlet that countered the false state narrative has been shut down and replaced by propaganda that paints the war as “far away,” while highlighting Mr. Putin’s “economic successes, new welfare benefits and renovated clinics”.


It is true that Mr. Putin believed that European support for Ukraine would crumble fast because of their reliance on Russian energy. However, while Europe has managed to miraculously cut their reliance on Russian gas by almost half, India and China have massively increased their oil purchases, which has eased part of the hole it might have caused in Mr. Putin’s coffers, and thus his ability to continue financing his war.


To further hurt Mr. Putin’s ability to finance his war, last December the EU added a ban on sea borne Russian oil into the Europe, and prohibited European insurance and shipping services from transporting it anywhere in the world. At the same time G7 nations put a price cap on Russian oil of $60 per barrel, hoping it would deliver the fatal blow to Russia’s war chest.

 

Earlier this year, research by Columbia University found that the ban and price cap have not had the intended effect on the flow of Russian oil, and that Russia has been commanding prices ranging from $74 - $82 per barrel from China, India and other countries. A New York Times investigation used publicly available shipping data to track the movement of some of these shadow oil tankers. However, more recently there is new evidence that the price cap is starting to work and oil revenues have declined substantially, but it is still not to anywhere near a level that would bankrupt Russia, or prevent Mr. Putin from continuing to fund his war.


So, Mr. Putin has no reason either to acquiesce to peace talks or to agree to terms that would amount to a humiliating loss of pride and his political clout. For Mr. Putin to admit he wants an off-ramp, one that would result in a territorial retreat, would be a fate worse than death. For the time being we are at an impasse, with neither side willing to negotiate anything short of complete victory.


Prior to the war the NATO alliance looked fragile and fractured, with President Macron publicly declaring it “brain-dead”. NATO’s weakness is something Mr. Putin likely factored into his calculations, but unfortunately for him Russia’s invasion had the opposite effect, not only jolting NATO back to life but also bolstering European unity. 


Mr. Putin has claimed that his invasion of Ukraine was partly intended to stop NATO expansion by sending a message to other countries that border Russia not to join NATO. This too has not worked out for Mr. Putin, as the previously neutral nordic countries of Sweden and Finland overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining NATO.


Europe also got lucky with an unusually warm winter, which helped avert an energy crisis. Also, they were helped with the US boosting natural gas deliveries and brokering deals with countries like Qatar to fill the gaps. However, these are not long-term solutions and the jury is still out on whether Europe can survive a harsh winter next year.


So, where do we go from here?


Mr. Putin has made it clear that he is digging in for a long, drawn out war of attrition. This is a man who has no respect for life, so he will keep throwing ill-equipped, poorly trained Russian troops as cannon fodder onto the battlefield. While the Ukrainians have shown tremendous courage, resolve and tactical military superiority, they are reliant on the US and NATO for aid, equipment, munitions and weapons. 


To break the stalemate on the battlefield, President Zelensky is pushing for delivery of heavy weaponry like armored vehicles, tanks and fighter jets, and has grown increasingly frustrated at the pace at which they are being supplied. It was this request for heavy weapons which showed the first cracks in the Western alliance. 


Germany pushed back on sending tanks and only reluctantly agreed to send them after US prodding. Germany is also dragging its feet on doubling its defense budget, something Chancellor Schultz had publicly announced he would do three days after Russia invaded.


There are other cracks within the NATO alliance too. Hungary continues to play both sides because it is reliant on Russia for its energy needs. They even secured an exemption on the EU oil ban, along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 


Turkey has refused to impose sanctions while significantly increasing trade with Russia, and continues to buy lots of oil. Both President Erdogan and Hungary spent months dragging their feet on approving Finland’s accession to NATO and continue to block approval for Sweden’s. 


While the US remains a staunch ally, President Biden now has to contend with a less Ukraine-friendly Republican Congress. If a Republican were to win the White House in the next election, Ukraine would most likely lose their blank cheque and without US support, they would not be able to stand up to Russia for long.


So it is in Mr. Putin’s interest to drag out this war. The longer it goes, the better the cards he will hold and President Zelensky knows that time is not on his side. He is acutely aware that only a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, sooner rather than later, will shift the calculus decisively in their favour, and force Russia to the negotiating table.


Read next installment series:

PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping

Friday, May 5, 2023

The New World (Dis)order: PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos

Is America in Decline? Illustration by Barbara Kelley via Hoover InstituteIllustration by Barbara Kelley via Hoover Institute


NOTE: This is the first in a five part series.

PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III (July): China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV (August) Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel
PART V (September): The New World (Dis)order 


PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos

“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
-Mark Twain


Bush’s Adventurism

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a foregone conclusion in my mind. I said late in 2021 that Putin would invade no matter what the West did to try and deter him. 


Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, in addition to his long-held territorial ambitions, meant to be a test to gauge the West’s unity and resolve, and to provide China with a litmus test for their impending invasion of Taiwan.


To understand how we got here, with Europe facing its largest invasion since WWII, we need to go back to the US invasion of Iraq, and also to events before and after the invasion. 


While I am not interested here in arguing about the justification for America’s invasion of Iraq, what is irrefutable is that every one of Cheney and Bush’s assertions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq turned out to be patently false. 


Leading up to the invasion, America failed to produce a single credible piece of evidence to back up their claims about Saddam’s ties to Al-Qaeda or his biological weapons stockpile. I stated categorically months before the invasion that the only way the US would find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is if they planted them there.


Also, America was unable to convince a majority of allies to join their illegal invasion. In addition to America and British forces, the grand coalition consisted of Georgia, Australia and Poland, with the three countries sending 2,300, 2,000 and 194 troops, respectively.


Post-invasion, independent and US intelligence agency reviews of millions of documents seized in Iraq conclusively stated that “…there was nothing to substantiate a "partnership" between Hussein and Al-Qaeda.” The report added that there was no ‘smoking gun,’ and everyone knows how many weapons of mass destruction were found.


While the Bush administration sought and got approval from U.S. Congress in 2002 to use military force against “those responsible for the September 11 attacks”, there was and remains no basis in international law to justify America’s invasion of Iraq. 


The Bush administration tried to argue that the UN security council resolution which granted use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990 applied. However, the UN declared that the Iraq invasion was in violation of its Charter. Secretary General Kofi Anan stated unequivocally in 2004, "From our point of view and the UN Charter point of view, it [the war] was illegal.”


Not only did America flagrantly violate international law by invading a sovereign nation without provocation, but the Bush administration broke every legal and democratic norm Americans have claimed to cherish and hold dear since WWII.


Ironically, former President Bush accidentally admitted it last year, when he repudiated Putin for invading Ukraine in a speech in May. He said, “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq—I mean of Ukraine.”


Under Bush, America embraced torture, set-up extra-judicial rendition sites in Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Tajikistan and other countries. They constructed a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay because it would be outside U.S. legal jurisdiction. There they illegally detained and tortured enemy combatants indefinitely and without charge, denying them Geneva Convention rights and refusing these men access to legal counsel.


Bush and Cheney’s actions damaged America’s moral standing and severely limited the US’s future ability to call out other nations for their transgressions. The unilateral way in which America invaded and occupied Iraq has not been lost on the leaders of China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian regimes. These regimes watched the U.S. violate international law, trample on enshrined global conventions and use financial muscle, military might and UN Security Council veto power to bribe, blackmail and bully smaller nations into acquiescence or abstention. 


Not a single U.S. leader or architect of the Iraq invasion was criminally charged or faced consequences for war crimes. To this day, the U.S. remains a non-signatory to the International Court of Justice (ICC), along with China, Russia, Syria, Qatar and Libya.


In 2008, while America was embroiled in two failing and unpopular wars and in the midst of a financial crisis, Russia invaded Georgia. It was the first time since their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that they launched a military attack on a neighboring country. While Russian-Georgian tensions had been simmering since the breakup of the USSR, it was Georgia’s tilt toward the West that drove Putin’s decision to invade. 


Georgia joined the US-led coalition in Iraq, sending the third largest contingent of troops, which had earned Putin’s ire. Then in 2004 they elected a pro-West leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who actively sought membership to NATO and wanted to move his country away from Russia’s sphere of influence. 


At the 2008 NATO Summit President Bush surprised everyone by lobbying to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. This crossed a red line for Putin, who was clear that he was not willing to lose control of former Soviet Union breakaway republics, because they provided a security buffer between Russia and the West. Putin’s invasion of Georgia began a few months after the summit.


France brokered the ceasefire agreement which stipulated the removal of Russian troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions at the center of the dispute. The agreement was hastily put together and tilted in favor of Russia, as a result of public divisions within the EU. Italy’s Foreign Minister at the time said “We cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe…on this point we are close to Putin's position.”


Vice-President Cheney condemned Russia’s actions and declared that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” Yet, that is precisely what happened with a muted response from the US and Europe. There was no punishment when Russia violated the terms of ceasefire by declaring Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent countries, and kept their occupying forces on Georgian soil; who remain to this day.


Russia’s aggression paid-off, without any costs to Putin. The Georgian President warned the US not to placate Putin, and prophetically said at the time that the Georgian invasion was the beginning of Putin’s ambitions, and not the limit of it.


Obama’s Non-Interventionism

The Obama years were a welcome change, and his administration attempted to repair the damage done by the previous one. On day one he declared he would shutter Guantanamo Bay, and later summed up his foreign policy doctrine as “Don’t do stupid shit”. 


Mr. Obama’s approach made sense, compared to his predecessor’s shoot from the hip style but it would come to be viewed as weakness, based on Mr. Obama’s repeated and dogmatic refusal to use force, in a world with rising authoritarianism.


In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself alight to protest corruption and police brutality. This act set in motion a series of violent mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa, which came to be known as The Arab Spring


However, unlike in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen where ruling dictators were toppled, the uprising in Syria was met with a brutal crackdown. Bashar Al-Assad used his military to mercilessly kill peaceful protestors and stamp out the popular rebellion. 


At the time President Obama warned Assad saying that "This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.” While the condemnation was strong, Mr. Obama resisted any US intervention in Syria. This despite his senior advisors, defense and national security teams urging him to take limited military action. 


Their recommendation was not to put US boots on the ground, but to train and equip the Syrian resistance, to set up safe zones and to launch targeted air strikes to degrade Assad’s air force. Their strategy was designed to force Assad to the negotiating table, rather than defeat him on the battlefield. However, Obama steadfastly refused and agreed only to provide humanitarian aid and light non-lethal equipment to the rebels.


Sensing Obama’s hesitation and unable to quell widespread and growing unrest across the country, in early 2012, Assad used chemical weapons and gassed his citizens. Meanwhile, the vacuum on the battlefield, created by Obama's refusal to arm the rebels, got filled by a loose and dangerous network of jihadis fighting for Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups. 


In late 2102, President Obama stated at a White House press briefing“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.“


The world, including his Secretaries of Defense and State saw the red-line as an ultimatum for the use of force. Vice-president Biden warned The President not to make a public declaration because he feared it would need to be acted on. He was right. Seeing America back-down after drawing a public red-line emboldened every dictator and authoritarian leader from China to Venezuela.


Ironically, it was Mr. Obama who said during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that“inaction tears at our conscienceand can lead to more costly interventions later…”. The U.S. President’s repeated refusal to act would have devastating consequences not just for the Syrian people but the world at large.


Even before the votes were cast in the 2016 US presidential election, a few things began to embolden Mr. Putin. First, the Obama administration’s strategic and costly error in downplaying the Russian state-sponsored hacking, which they uncovered in the summer of that year after DNC servers were found to be compromised. 


Obama chose not to respond forcefully because he wanted to be seen as impartial and because everyone in his administration believed Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, so they decided that starting“a cyber war with Russia wasn’t worth it.”


Mr. Putin was also emboldened by candidate Trump’s open embrace of Russia. One that resulted in a bizzare public plea, at a press conference in Florida, where he said "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” 


Third was the result of Putin’s high-risk disinformation gamble, which exceeded even his wildest expectations. Putin had succeeded in sowing mistrust amongst the US electorate and deepening existing divisions among Americans across the political spectrum. 


Through the Mueller investigation we learned that the Kremlin’s elaborate campaign had a $1.2 million monthly budget that was used for identity theft, which enabled Russian spies to enter the US under false pretenses. The Russian agents set up meetings with legitimate organisations for fact-finding and on-the-ground research in swing states. Information that was used to set up fake grass roots organisations, social media accounts, run anti-Clinton ads and even stage local events. The Russian’s even paid Americans to appear at Trump rallies dressed as Mrs. Clinton in a prison uniform.


Trumpism

Once Trump became president it was clear that he lacked cohesive vision and coherent strategy to guide his foreign policy. His decisions were instead driven by his whims. One minute he would contradict military commanders about troop withdrawals by tweet, and next make decisions that lined up with his personal business interests. Trump continued to publicly express his admiration for dictators and bragged about his great chemistry with them while showing disdain for NATO.


Mr. Trump’s first official trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, a place where his love of dictatorship and personal business coincided. Upon arrival Trump’s first words were“We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” Next came his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, followed in early 2018 with the termination of JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. 


In 2017, after Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing them of supporting terrorism. Trump welcomed the move, even as his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense were publicly reenforcing America’s relationship with Qatar, a country that hosts a key US Air Base and is the regional headquarters of U.S. Central Command. 


At the G-20 Summit in Hamburg Trump had a second meeting with Putin which was not disclosed by the White House. This meeting broke protocol as Trump met with Putin for over an hour without any other US officials present and without his translator. It was just Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and his translator. This was followed by a two-hour summit in Helsinki between the two leaders, again with no US officials except a translator.


Trumpism was defined by chaotic, contradictory and haphazard foreign policy, most often out of sync with his own administration. Trump broke with decades of US policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In agreeing to meet with Kim Jong Un, twice, he became the first sitting US President in history to do so and set foot in North Korea


Mr. Trump defended Saudi Arabia after they murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying on NBC’s Meet the Press"Iran's killed many, many people a day. Other countries in the Middle East; this is a hostile place. This is a vicious, hostile place. If you're going to look at Saudi Arabia, look at Iran, look at other countries,"


It is true that Trump administration agreed to send lethal aid to Ukraine, which Mr. Obama’s had refused, but Mr. Trump was also the one who held a gun to President Zelensky’s head. Mr. Trump put on hold on US military aid unless Ukraine agreed to investigate Joe Biden, which led to his first impeachment trial.


Throughout his presidency Mr. Trump made false claims about Ukraine, privately and publicly. A respected diplomat told lawmakers during the impeachment inquiry, that Trump had said to him “Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of 'terrible people.'"  The US President was the same man who praised Putin in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and said at the time that “the rest of Ukraine will fall … fairly quickly…” 


In 2014, Trump defended Russia despite evidence showing that a Russian missile shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane, killing all 208 passengers on board. It would not be an understatement to say that Mr. Putin believed he had an ally in the White House, and on the heels of his 2016 election disinformation campaign success, it left him feeling more emboldened for his future invasion of Ukraine.


Trump’s final act as president was to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty, the third arms control agreement he withdrew the US from. His administration claimed they were doing so because the Russians had been violating the agreement, but the US too had placed their own restrictions on it. Mr. Trump went ahead despite NATO countries expressing “regret” over the US intention to withdraw, stating that despite its problems the treaty remained “functioning and useful”.


Biden’s Afghan Chaos

China, Iran and Russia made hay of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Without question they saw both failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of declining US military power and influence. 


Mr. Putin stated with glee on the anniversary of Washington’s twenty-year intervention in Afghanistan, “The result is zero, if not to say that it is negative”. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said of the chaotic scenes of people clinging and falling from aircraft wheels, “American myth down. More and more people are awakening.” 


The Afghan withdrawal made the Biden administration look incompetent and weak. Especially after the US president had publicly stated that there would be an orderly withdrawal and assured the world that US intelligence assessments made him confident that a Taliban takeover of the country was "highly unlikely” and would take at least six months to a one year - not the 10 days it actually took.


Within the backdrop of the disastrous Afghan exit, the Biden administration had also been working to forge closer ties with Ukraine. In July, 2021, under Mr. Trump, the US and Ukraine conducted joint naval exercises with 32 other countries from six continents participating. Operation Sea Breeze almost escalated into conflict after a British naval destroyer entered Russian territorial waters, and the Russians fired at it.


In January 2021, right after President Biden assumed office, Mr. Zelensky appealed to US President to let Ukraine join NATO. After receiving assurances of US support from Mr. Biden, President Zelensky signed a decree freezing the assets of Viktor Medvedchuk, a political heavyweight with close ties to the Kremlin and placed him under house arrest. 


Mr. Medvedchuk’s was Putin’s choice for replacing Mr. Zelensky and heading up a puppet government in Ukraine. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter. Soon after his arrest Russia began amassing troops on the Ukraine border, claiming they were conducting training exercises.


In November that year, as Russian troops continued to amass on Ukraine’s borders, Mr. Biden signed the “US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership” a document stating a commitmentto help Ukraine achieve “full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.” 


This was a red line for Putin, going back to the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, when according to his version of history, the West promised that they would never expand NATO into the former USSR’s backyard. However, diplomats engaged in those negotiations, scholars and even former President Gorbachov have acknowledged that no such promise was made.


By December 2021, around 100,000 Russian troops, tanks and heavy artillery had been deployed around Ukraine’s borders. Russia issued security demands which included NATO pulling back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and barring Ukraine from ever joining the alliance. 


While the West rebuffed their demands, they once again misjudged Mr. Putin. Ignoring history, they believed that the US President’s public and private warnings that an invasion would result in disaster for the Russian economy and for Mr. Putin personally would be deterrent enough to get the Russian President to act rationally.


Read next installment in June:

PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin