Obama, not Trump, has built up Russian strongman Putin

Ukraine has put its troops on high alert; some think Russia may be preparing to invade its western neighbor. What would the U.S. do? If history is any guide: nothing.

While the media has ominously suggested that Donald Trump is in cahoots with Vladimir Putin, it is President Obama who has allowed the Russian strongman to become the power broker in the Middle East. It is thanks to Obama that Putin enjoys 82 percent approval ratings at home, amid collapsing incomes and widespread food shortages. As The New York Times wrote today, Russia’s stoking of tensions in Ukraine “allows Russia to continue asserting itself as a global power, even though its economy is smaller than Australia’s.”

Though President Obama joined the EU in imposing sanctions and warned Vladimir Putin of impending isolation after the seizure of Crimea, the Russian leader has continued to thumb his nose at the U.S. Recently, for instance, despite “stern” U.S. warnings, Moscow began delivery of an S-300 air defense system to Iran – a system that could in the future be used to protect nuclear sites.

It isn’t the first time that Putin has embarrassed Obama. From harboring former NSA worker and WikiLeaks activist Edward Snowden to reportedly orchestrating the email leaks which revealed corruption at the DNC, the former KGB operative has repeatedly provoked the president, knowing that he has, weirdly, the upper hand.  President Obama has needed Putin’s help on two fronts critical to his approval ratings and his legacy: fighting ISIS and allowing the Iran nuke deal to go forward.

That, however, has been ignored by a media frenzy over Trump’s supposed links to the Russian bully. This preposterous story line emerged after Trump said at a rally, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to those communications that Hillary Clinton deleted from her personal server. Emails that, for the record, should not have been destroyed and that she lied about.

The narrative is that by expressing admiration for Vladimir Putin’s leadership ability and because he has had meager business activities in Russia, Trump might somehow cede power to the former KGB operative if he became president. The charge is almost comical, given how Obama has done just that.

Obama suffered an “off-mike” gaffe in 2012 when he passed a message to Vladimir Putin through then-president Dmitry Medvedev, assuring him that on missile defense “After my election I have more flexibility.”  Medvedev replies, "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."

In those words Obama signaled that post-election he might abandon plans for a European missile defense system, which was meant to defend against Iranian nukes. In reality, he has done just that. Early on he had scrapped plans to install 10 Interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar network in the Czech Republic.  A substitute program, meant to be more efficient and strategically superior, was expected to be installed by 2018. It has been “indefinitely” postponed, due to Russian objections.

Meanwhile, in 2013 Obama waffled when President Assad in Syria used sarin gas against his own people -- a line that our president had warned him not to cross. When the Syrian dictator did cross it, Obama flinched. Instead of attacking Syria, Obama turned the mess over to Putin to resolve. This was a remarkable decision, which became even more costly in 2014 when, bolstered by his newfound alliance with Obama, Putin invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea.

After Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Obama promised that, “If Russia continues on its present course…the isolation will deepen, the sanctions increase and there will be more consequences for the Russian economy.” The reality? Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov 20 times in the next twelve months and visited Moscow twice to meet with Valdimir Putin, just to be sure he wasn’t getting too lonely.

Obama could not afford to isolate Putin, because he was losing the fight against ISIS and his approval ratings were plummeting.  Obama had permitted an offensive against the terrorist organization but so hobbled the military that bombing sorties returned home with 75 percent of their munitions on board, for fear of civilian casualties. ISIS thrived and grew, spawning attacks around the world, so Obama allowed Putin to take over the battle.

In March, The Guardian reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,000 Syrian civilians, including children, in the prior six months. Moscow’s attacks targeted not just ISIS, but also hit U.S.-trained and U.S.-allied opponents of Assad.  ISIS-held territory began to shrink, and Obama’s approval ratings rose.

What could have limited Putin’s aggression? One approach would have been an all-out effort to break Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. The U.S. is drowning in natural gas; we could become a major exporter of LNG to our European allies, and loosen the chokehold that Russia has on the EU. This, however, would bolster the fortunes of our energy producers -- an outcome anathema to the Obama White House.

Putin is flying high, overcoming a shrinking economy and widespread international opprobrium. He has manipulated President Obama into giving him an important seat at the table. He doesn’t need Trump.