PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SNYDER/ REUTERS / LANDOV
“They’re Russians, they get shot if they smile.” – Jack O’ Callahan
Four years ago, during the third Presidential debate, President Obama shamed GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his claim that Russia was America’s biggest geopolitical threat.
“Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, and the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years…But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
President Obama was, in a way, playing to his strength by pivoting from Russia to terrorism. Then, like now, more Americans see terrorist organizations such as ISIL or Al Qaida as a much more imminent threat than Russia. President Obama, having just ordered the successful operation against terrorist boogeyman number one, Osama Bin Laden, knew Romney could not feasibly criticize his terrorist credentials. This strategy, combined with some self inflicted wounds in the Romney camp, not to mention a hug and a hurricane, ultimately succeeded and President Obama earned his re-election.
Despite this political maneuvering on the part of President Obama, Russian ambitions were still on the rise. Much like the latter half of the Cold War, the threat posed by Russia today deals directly with its growing sphere of influence. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation became relegated to what was essentially a Junior Partner on the world stage, far from its former Global Superpower status. This was a particularly “bitter pill for the Russian leadership and the population” who found it “hard to accept that the United States no longer regarded Russia as a rival” (Stent, 2014). Since then Russia has taken actions to regain its former Senior Partner world power status, mostly by utilizing its ability to project power regionally to “thwart American interests” or acts as a “spoiler in areas where the United States has vital interests” (Stent, 2014).
Part of this “spoiler” strategy played out in 2014 when negotiations over a potential oil contract in Ukraine turned into a full scale military intervention. Near the end of President Obama’s first term, Ukraine, like eleven other former Warsaw Pact states, was considering membership in both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As a result of this potential membership Ukraine’s relations with the West were warm and large infrastructure co-ventures, such as the construction of an oil pipeline, were planned. Part of the reason for the construction of this new pipeline was to help reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian oil, which would in effect “cement closer relations with the European Union at Russia’s expense.” Unsurprisingly President Putin was not crazy about the idea, and countered with a 30% reduction in the price of Russian supplied gas bill and a $15 billion aid package for the Ukraine. The pro-Russian leaning president abandoned the Western deal and citizen protests began. As the conflict expanded, Russian soldiers without insignias began to cross the border and carry out operations in Ukraine, most notably taking hold of the Crimean peninsula. After taking control of the peninsula and several separatist strongholds in the east, Russia organized an internationally unrecognized popular referendum on Russian control of the area, the results of which were aimed at lending justification and legitimacy to their annexation of Crimea aimed at lending justification and legitimacy to their annexation of Crimea. These acts threw Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into a frenzy as they tried to figure out the best way to respond. The NATO allies instituted a series of sanctions on Russian leaders and began beefing up of NATO military presence in its allied member states. What had begun as a plan to unite Europe and gain an economic partner ended with President Putin seizing both land from and control over a former Soviet state.
Recently Russia has been playing the “spoiler” more and more frequently. Examples include the harboring of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, scrambling fighter jets around US Navy warships, and most recently a suspected hack of the Democratic National Committees websites, emails, and opposition research in order to sow even more confusion into the presidential race. In what can best be described as an international game of chess, Russia has been constantly countering our moves, willingly sacrificing their own pieces in an attempt to push the game into a stalemate. Since Russia can not win the game, they want to at least keep American interests from prevailing. The President and other Democrats who mocked Romney four years ago have finally come around to this reasoning, however, there is still one person who hasn’t: the current GOP Nominee for President.
Donald Trump, despite his draconian, uber conservative stances on immigration and the war on terror, a man who sees threats to himself and the country like a child sees monsters under the bed, does not seem to see Russia as a threat to American interests. Early in the Republican primary process Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on his leadership, saying “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. I think that he’s a strong leader.” Putin in turn has called Trump “bright” and said he would like to work with him as President. While a budding bromance isn’t necessarily a sign of foreign policy nievita, his more recent comments concerning our commitment to our NATO allies are. In the midst of increased Russian aggression, Trump announced in a New York Times interview that he would “force some of the 28 NATO members to contribute more and would make American defense contingent upon those nations having ‘fulfilled their obligations to us.’” Comments like this weaken the overall effectiveness of the decades old NATO alliance, and show division and hesitation in the face of aggressors. While asking our allies to contribute more to the common cause is not inherently wrong, leveraging their safety while the enemy is creeping ever closer to the gate is. Most recently Trump has gone as far as to call on Russia to hack into Clinton’s emails, asking “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” While one can write this off as simple campaign rhetoric, is it really becoming of a candidate for Commander in Chief to encourage a foreign power to try and overcome our cyber defenses in order to help him win an election?
The takeaway of all of this is simple. Donald Trump, whether consciously or not, is showing us just how little he truly knows about foreign policy. His ignorance to the dangers of an increasingly aggressive Russia poses to American interests, be they in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or the chambers of the UN Security Council, is worrisome. The fact that he is ignoring the people trying to alert him otherwise is dangerous. No matter who wins in November, Russia and Mr. Putin will remain a threat to American interests. The United States cannot afford for our next Commander-in-Chief to take this threat lightly.
Stent, Angela E. The Limits of Partnership. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014. Print.
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