There is a Bear in the Woods: Resets and Returns 2009-2016

Tom Warwick

Editor’s Note: This is the final installation in an ongoing series exploring the creation of “Putin’s Russia” and its place in the international community.  Click here to read the preceding entries.

“I would be warned against using a chess analogy because in chess we have rules, and clearly Putin doesn’t care about rules.” – Garry Kasparov, Russian Chess Master

By the end of 2008, US-Russian relations could be described as strained at best.  The continuing US presence in Iraq combined with Russian aggression in Georgia (the country, not the state) had all but evaporated the remaining goodwill that once existed between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.  However, a fresh start was in the works for both countries.  In the United States, Barack Obama had been propelled to the White House with a foreign policy centered around reconciliation with those countries which felt neglected, insulted, or quite literally invaded by the Bush Administration.  In Russia, Putin, who was constitutionally barred from running for a third term as President, was succeeded by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the long time second fiddle to Putin’s 1812 Overture.  Both leaders were eager to reverse the cooling of relations that had taken place under their predecessors.  

An Awkward Start

While overtones had been made during the election and transition periods, the “official” reset began in March of 2009 when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a prop reset button. While the symbolism was perhaps undermined by the fact that the Russian spelling of reset on the button actually translated to “overload,” Minister Lavrov gamely played along and a new effort was seemingly underway…

The first chance to demonstrate this new chapter in US-Russian relations would come in July 2009 during President Obama’s first state visit to Russia.  The point of the trip was to work out the details of a new nuclear reduction agreement between the two former Cold War rivals.  Unfortunately, there was little that both sides agreed on.  In the end Medvedev and Obama smiled as they signed the new START treaty, a shell of an agreement that ultimately had little impact on either country’s supply of nuclear arms. It became clear that, despite both leaders’ best intentions, overcoming a half century of distrust would be no easy feat.

A little over a year later, President Medvedev’s first visit to Washington would be no more successful than President Obama’s to Moscow.  While Obama would announce his support for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and treat the Russian President to the finest American cuisine, the relationship between the two men continued to come off as awkward. To make matters worse, just a few days after the visit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would announce that they had broken up a Russian spy ring based in New York and had arrested ten Russian nationals suspected of espionage.

Despite this setback and failure to connect on a personal level, real progress would come about a year later thanks to  Muammar al-Qaddafi.  At the time the Libyan dictator was facing uncertainty in the face of the rising Arab Spring.  As French President Sarkozy undertook efforts to oust Qaddafi, other Western leaders faced a choice.  In the end Obama and Medvedev jointly agreed not to interfere with Sarkozy’s efforts and would agree to support a UN resolution to establish a no-fly zone over Libya  This moment would be a high point in US-Russian cooperation, but it would also be the moment that Medvedev sealed his fate as a one term President.  

Palace Intrigue

Back in Moscow, Prime Minister Putin was growing tired of his young prodigy. While Putin had for the most part avoided contradicting Medvedev on matters of foreign policy, an area of decision making reserved for the President under the Russian constitution, his patience was wearing thin. It would be the cooperation in Libya that pushed him over the edge.  Putin during his time as President had established an amicable relationship with the “Mad Dog of the Middle East.”  The two leaders had shared a “disdain for the West’s hypocrisy,” and Qaddafi flattered the Russian President with his praise about Putin’s resistance to Washington. When Qaddafi was killed in 2011, Putin was quick offer sympathy and share his resentment for “the perfidy of the West.”  

In Putin’s mind, Qaddafi’s downfall was a direct result of his decision to make concessions, confessed his sins, and paid compensation to the relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing.”  Putin believed that Qaddafi’s “obedience” as well as his willingness to “come in from the cold and put his trust in the west” had resulted in him being “stabbed in the back.” To Putin this was a study in “Western intervention;” the US stirs up protests, gives the protesters rhetorical support, and then eventually sends in the fighter jets. Putin came to believe that strength and intractability was the only way to stop the West.

The fact that Russia had played a part in what Putin saw as a betrayal of a like minded partner was no small thing, and the result was increased pressure on Medvedev.  After a series of stinging rebukes of the young President on Russia’s state-run television, Medvedev would announce that he would no longer seek reelection and would instead support a third Putin term.  

Putin’s Return

There was never really any doubt that Vladimir Putin would once again be elected President of Russia.  The surprise came after the election when thousand of protesters took to the streets to challenge the legitimacy of the election. Putin would equate this kind of civil unrest to the mobs he faced as a young KGB officer, and come to see it as a direct threat to his authority. His paranoia would only increase after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared support for the protesters and characterized the elections as “neither free nor fair.” Clinton’s support for the protest would become, in Putin’s mind, evidence that the US had stirred up the unrest in an effort to remove him from power a-la al-Qaddafi.

The result of the US support for the Russian protesters would be a series of tit-for-tat policy announcements from the two countries. After the United States passed the Magnitsky Act, which intended to punish Russia for the death of a political prisoner, Putin responded by placing a ban on the adoption of Russian children by US citizens.  When Russia granted asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, President Obama would respond by canceling a state visit to Russia meant to coincide with the G-20 summit being hosted there. This back and forth would escalate to the point of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the stonewalling of humanitarian efforts in Syria.  

In just three years the progress made under the “Obama reset” would not only be undone, but US-Russian relations would be diminished to a level not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War. However, there was still more to come.

A Brief Note on the 2016 Election  

When I began this series, I knew that at some point I would need to address the controversy surrounding the 2016 Presidential elections. I intentionally put off writing this last installation in hopes that more would be revealed about the events surrounding the two campaigns and the extent to which the Russian government had interfered. Unfortunately, while there has been a constant drip of politically sensitive revelations leaking out of the White House, the entire story still has not been revealed. As a result, I feel that speculating on these events would fly in the face of our Blog’s mission, and will instead wait until Special Investigator Robert Mueller and his team have released their report. While the revelations may not be discussed as part of this series, I can guarantee that the nerds on our staff will not be able to resist writing about it when the facts are finally released.  

In the meantime I will leave it at this, the 2016 US Presidential Election held a specific interest for Putin. While Putin hated President Obama for implementing a series of crippling sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he loathed Hillary Clinton. Putin viewed Clinton as the personification of western liberal interventionism, and a direct geopolitical threat to reestablishing Russia’s global influence. Additionally, Putin had not forgotten Clinton’s “neither free nor fair” comments and had a personal interest in her political defeat. There is no doubt as to the fact that the Russian Government attempted to interfere in the election, the only question left is how much of an effect this interference had on the outcome and who knew what and when did they know it.

The End Game

In the end, no matter the amount of power Putin obtains or the number of opponents he defeats, he remains the scared KGB agent standing outside an East German embassy trying to show how tough he is. Vladimir Putin is motivated by equal parts fear of popular uprising and demand for respect – both for himself and his country. It is this motivation will continue to color his actions, and it is this motivation which holds the key to solving Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Putin wants to make Russia great again. As history has shown us, this will be done through capitalizing Russia’s own merits and by sowing the seeds of chaos in his enemies. The only question that remains is how the rest of the world will respond when he does.

We hope you have enjoyed our “There is a Bear in the Woods” Series. To revisit the other installations in this series click here. You can also check out these related articles:

Trumps Alarming Russian Blind Spot

FBB Special Report: Spies, Lies, and Trumps Security Guy

FBB Special Report: New Kid on the Block

FBB Special Report: Are you F****** Kidding me, Again?

FBB Primer: The Struggle in Syria

Pilgrim in an Unholy Land: Ambassador Jon Huntsman


Photo Credit: US News & World Report

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s