AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency and even since he has departed the White House, the mainstream media and elected Democrats have falsely insisted that Trump is in league with Vladimir Putin and even a “Russian agent,” pushing outrageous conspiracy theories about the former president’s supposed ties to the Kremlin. Now, the full absurdity of those claims has been laid bare as Putin’s army has swept into Ukraine on Joe Biden’s watch, while it was Donald Trump who held the Russian leader at bay for four years.
Since Putin’s rise to power in early 2000, every American president has sought to forge a unique relationship with the controversial leader. The first significant breakdown in relations between the two countries came when Russia refused to support President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. As things continued to go downhill, in 2008 Bush vowed to admit Ukraine and Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which would have effectively put Russia’s top geopolitical rival right on their doorstep. That same year, Russia invaded Georgia and annexed much of the country to Russian-backed states.
When President Barack Obama assumed office, he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a high-profile and public Russian “Reset” campaign to create a “fresh start” between the countries that was doomed from the very beginning. In one particularly embarrassing incident, in 2009 Clinton brought a literal button that was supposed to say “reset” in Russian to a meeting with her Russian peer, Sergey Lavrov. In Russian, however, the button actually said “overcharged” and inadvertently came to signify the rocky relationship that followed.
Throughout the rest of the Obama administration, Russian-American relations continued to deteriorate. Russia providing asylum to American whistleblower Edward Snowden, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the intervention of Russian forces in the Syrian Civil war were all viewed as aggressions by Putin against the West, but were met with little pushback from President Obama. After Putin’s invasion of Crimea, Obama pledged that Russia would become a pariah on the international stage. But in the wake of paltry sanctions, Putin emerged unscathed. By the time Obama left office, Putin was more powerful and emboldened than ever.
When Trump assumed office following the 2016 election, he did so when Russian-American relations were at their lowest point since 2001. Trump’s approach to dealing with Russia was reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Most of his public statements were geared toward improving relations between the two countries, recognizing that the U.S. needed to turn its attention toward China, America’s true global competitor. Trump also recognized that what Putin really desired was the ability to project strength to his people in order to maintain his hold on power. So, Trump was willing to put up a public front in exchange for Putin halting his territorial ambitions.
However, Trump’s policies and actions toward Russia remained focused on keeping Putin and his expansionist aims in check. As Daniel Vajdich, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, put it in 2018, “when you actually look at the substance of what this administration has done, not the rhetoric but the substance, this administration has been much tougher on Russia than any in the post-Cold War era.”
Even some mainstream media voices were won over by Trump’s approach to Russia. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that “the Trump administration was pretty tough on the Russians. They armed Ukraine. They armed the Poles. They extended NATO operations and exercises in ways that even the Obama administration had not done.” After four years of breathless insistence that Trump would either start a nuclear war or oversee the re-establishment of the Soviet Union, Putin had not attempted any military excursions beyond his own borders, and appeared wary of crossing President Trump – suggesting that the dynamic was not one of Trump being a stooge of Putin, but rather Putin being outmaneuvered by Trump.
With the election of Joe Biden, however, that all changed. Though many Democrats privately hoped Biden would continue Trump’s approach to Russia, Biden appeared to be out of his depth in dealing with Putin.
Biden’s actions emboldened Putin and opened the door for Russia to invade Ukraine. Seeing the disastrous U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, Putin undoubtedly believed that Biden was weak and ineffective as commander-in-chief. As former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker stated in a recent interview about Afghanistan, “Everybody in the world saw, including Putin, and he thought, OK, the United States is no longer committed to exercising power in the world the way it used to be, and that this situation may not last forever.”
In contrast, Trump’s decisions to give American servicemembers greater leeway to engage with Russian-backed forces in Syria, drop the “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan, and the elimination of Qasem Solemani likely gave Putin pause. In total, by December 2019, the Trump administration had taken 52 separate actions directly against Russia, making clear that Trump was not afraid to use the full might of the American military to defend U.S. national interests.
Biden’s complete abandonment of American energy independence also likely played a role in Putin’s decision to invade when he did. While the economic sanctions against Russia have been devastating to their economy, the nation still has one critical point of leverage. As the nations of Europe have abandoned their own coal and oil energy facilities in favor of renewable ones, they have become increasingly reliant on Russian fuel imports to meet their needs. Should, God forbid, the invasion of Ukraine ultimately succeed, Russia would likely use this leverage to “ride out” the worst of the sanctions just as Putin did following his 2014 invasion of Crimea.
If oil production were still at Trump-era levels, the price of energy would be much lower, thereby greatly reducing Russian energy profits and its ability to withstand sanctions. As it stands, Germany is still importing Russian oil and gas, and other countries have been reluctant to join the most stringent sanctions.
The failure of the west to effectively oppose Putin’s invasion speaks to a broader failure to define the strategic goals of NATO following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each American president came into office looking for a “reset” with Putin. The Russian leader, in turn, manipulated this goodwill to his advantage. While Democrats continue to pillory Trump for his rhetoric toward Putin, one fact is irrefutable: Trump is the only President of this century on whose watch Putin did not invade a sovereign nation.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.