Republican and Democratic administrations have misread Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime. The West, in general, has diagrammed policy towards post-Soviet Russia under false perceptions. Sun Tzu’s notion that, “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat,” (The Art of War) has epitomized the Free World’s course following the collapse of the USSR.
The fall of Soviet communism produced a euphoria in the West. Rightly so. The wholesale theft of Eastern and Central Europe by the Soviet Union following World War II, the ascent of Chinese communism, and the invasion of South Korea by the North, prompted a comprehensive Western reaction to challenge the malignancy of communism. Why did the West assume Russia would transition into a democracy?
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton inherited the dividend of the Reagan Doctrine. Capitalism, as the West’s premier socioeconomic model, played an important role in sinking socialism. However, it was not the only factor. The morality inherent in Western values were paramount instruments. Ideology mattered. America and the international liberal order that emerged after the defeat of National Socialism in Europe was not just about economics.
The transition following the breakup of the Soviet Union contained suspicious elements from the beginning. The 1990s in Russia witnessed the biggest privatization program in history. The massive transfer of state-owned enterprises (SOE) into private hands proved to be a deceitful ploy. It was legalized theft. The managers of those very SOEs ended up “selling” to themselves these assets. With state subsidized credit, regulated low prices, shares and voucher schemes, a newly formed oligarchic class with political ties to power and the Soviet past was consolidated. Elections lost their competitiveness, as the kleptocracy rigged the political system.
Under these conditions, Clinton signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which made the U.S. a guarantor of Ukraine’s sovereignty, in exchange for the surrender of their nuclear arsenal, then the world’s third largest. How could Clinton trust Russia? After all, it was clear by then that Boris Yeltsin had done a superb job in dismantling the USSR, but a feeble one in establishing a democracy.
The Islamic attacks of September 11 lead George W Bush to see Putin as an ally. He went so far as to publicly say in 2001 that he had seen Putin’s soul and was convinced of his honesty. One wonders if Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 changed Bush’s mind. Judging from the West’s reaction to this brutal aggression, Putin continued to be a stealth thug.
Barack Obama was, by far, the biggest dupe for the Putin regime. The actions of his two presidential terms empowered the Russian dictator in unprecedented ways. The dismantling of the nascent Europe defensive missile system, denying arms sales to Ukraine and torpedoing its NATO entry, authorizing American uranium access rights, and a “red-line” invitation in Syria, were all overtures to Putin for a failed “reset” policy. In the 2012 elections, as Obama debated, Mitt Romney, he ridiculed the Republican candidate for suggesting Putin was a threat to the West. The Obama Doctrine turned out to be an appeasement treatise that galvanized Russian adventurism.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was met with weakness and moral ambivalence by Obama. This validated Russia’s blatant claim that, in some absurd manner, it had a sphere of influence “right” to pulverize Ukrainian sovereignty. At that moment, the Western international liberal order that was built after the Second World War, was formally buried. Russian cyber-attacks, the election meddling, and the Havana Syndrome, were only some manifestations of Putin’s imperialist endeavors that would follow.
Donald Trump, despite some of his reckless public statements, was the president who caused the most damage to the Putin regime. The bombings in Syria that killed Russian soldiers and arms sales to Ukraine, along with the training of its military, directly challenged Russian dictatorial interests. However, it was the remarkable increase in American oil production that most hurt Putin’s war machine.
Fossil-fuel sales revenues, as was the case with the USSR, remains Russia’s key to hard currency entry. Collapsing oil prices, resulting from the increase in supply under Trump’s watch, was a financial blow to the Eurasian kleptocracy. Coincidently, this was part of Reagan’s strategy to rollback Soviet communism. Words and symbols, however, are vital in politics. Trump erred by stubbornly refusing to address Putin as a dictator. This played into the Left’s narrative. It also helped Putin.
The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has opened a new chapter in American and European foreign policy. The West must partner with the free exclusively.