Menu

Politics

State Department

Did Russia’s cold warrior read Obama perfectly?

 

Russia's cold warrior has been studying his on-again, off-again adversary in the White House for more than five years now -- and some lawmakers argue his military invasion in Ukraine shows he has been emboldened by President Obama's actions. 

"I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we're playing marbles. And I don't think it's even close," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told "Fox News Sunday." 

As Secretary of State John Kerry decries Vladimir Putin's "incredible act of aggression" in Ukraine, Republicans like Rogers suggest the Russian leader's military gambit shouldn't be that surprising. The administration tried to hit the "reset" button with Russia -- but, as Russian troops now secure control over the disputed Crimean Peninsula, some say all Putin saw was a series of green lights. 

Members of both parties are oddly aligned when it comes to what to do about Russia's incursion in Ukraine -- pursue trade and other economic pressure, they say, but not U.S. military action. But Republicans nevertheless are blaming Obama in part for Putin's aggression, pointing to a series of steps, or missteps, over the last five years. 

Rogers said the first was the controversial 2009 decision to abandon a missile-defense agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration argued at the time that it no longer needed the infrastructure to counter Iran and could make do by upgrading existing interceptors. 

But Russia was watching. 

"It caused huge problems for our allies and emboldened the Russians," Rogers said. "And it really has been a downhill slide." 

More recently, Obama faced off last year against Syria's Russia-backed Assad regime after drawing a "red line" over the movement and use of chemical weapons. Inspectors pointed to evidence that chemical weapons were used in that country, but the Obama administration ended up backing down, accepting an international deal -- which only has been partly completed -- to ship chemical weapons out of Syria. 

The Obama administration, though, all along has downplayed historical tensions between Washington and Moscow, which flared just before he took office during the standoff between Georgia and Russia over two separatist regions. 

Aside from the "reset," Obama underscored his approach several times during the 2012 campaign. In one infamous moment, he was caught on a live microphone telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he'd have "more flexibility" on missile defense after the election. 

"I will transmit this information to Vladimir," Medvedev was heard saying. 

Obama also tried to zing GOP rival Mitt Romney in a debate for calling Russia a geopolitical threat. 

"The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years," Obama quipped. 

Romney stood by his claim that Russia is a "geopolitical foe." 

In hindsight, Republicans say Obama has sent a series of signals like this to Moscow. 

"The Russian government has felt free to intervene militarily in Ukraine because the United States, along with Europe, has failed to make clear there would be serious, potentially irreparable consequences to such action," Sen. Bob Corker, top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Thursday. 

On top of the administration's dealings with Russia, Congress and the Pentagon have also pursued steep cuts in defense spending as Obama repeatedly has touted the coming end of the Afghanistan war. His public speeches, as well as comments from bipartisan lawmakers, all reflect a war-weariness on behalf of the public. Whether that was taken as a signal that the U.S. would stand back should Moscow advance on its neighbors is an open question.   

Administration officials, though, made clear that in the case of Ukraine, the Pentagon is not preparing for military action. After Obama warned Russia there will be "costs" for intervening in Ukraine, a senior U.S. official confirmed the Pentagon has not prepared "any military contingencies" for the country. 

NATO, and congressional lawmakers, appear to be on the same page. 

But Kerry, who plans to travel to Kiev on Tuesday, and the rest of the administration argue that they will take a range of steps to put heavy pressure on Putin. This could include everything from economic sanctions to Security Council resolutions to reconsideration of Russia's membership in the G-8. The U.S. and its allies already have announced they will suspend preparation work for a looming G-8 summit scheduled in Russia. 

Putin is "not going to have a Sochi G-8," Kerry told NBC's "Meet the Press." "He may not even remain in the G-8 if this continues. ... He's going to lose on the international stage."