IN 2009, President Obama cancelled the deployment of US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic as an earnest of his intent to reset relations with Russia and allay its anger over Nato’s years of eastward expansion.
Shortly before his re-election in 2012, he assured the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have flexibility over the positioning of Nato missiles once he was secure in the White House. The remark, at a security conference in South Korea, was picked up accidentally by an open microphone.
Obama asked Medvedev to give his message to Vladimir Putin, who was about to become Russian President for a second time. The American President implied his agreement that Moscow’s security grievances were legitimate.
Reset didn’t work out as hoped. The Obama administration went on to help overthrow the pro-Russian government of Ukraine in 2014. Fearing that Ukraine might join Nato next, Putin seized Ukrainian Crimea in retaliation to secure the main base of his Black Sea navy.
Still the pragmatist, Obama accepted the fait accompli rather than risk a worsening of the East-West stand-off over Nato. Instead, a low-level war broke out in eastern Ukraine where the Russian-speaking majority sought autonomy.
Joe Biden took office inheriting from both Obama and Donald Trump a source of permanent discord that Moscow called an existential threat which it would not tolerate.
Although he has mainly followed his mentor’s policies, something changed in the attitude to Putin of Biden’s foreign policy team, most of whom had served under Obama and had shied from confrontation over Crimea. The thinking seemed to have become some version of: let’s neutralise the Russians by just ignoring them.
As a result of his inability to force the US into serious negotiations, Putin has waged war on Ukraine since February. The Obama doctrine of caution has been replaced by a gauntlet thrown down to Putin.
Now that the Swedes and Finns have tabled their Nato applications, only Turkey’s threatened veto can prevent them joining and once they do, a line will have been crossed that will not be negotiable with the Russians.
Admitting them to the alliance adds 800 miles of Finnish border with Russia for the potential deployment of Nato missiles and troops. It pushes Putin deeper into isolation from the West and seriously complicates the prospect of closing down the war in Ukraine soon.
How far does Nato expect Putin to swallow this enlargement on top of the one he is fighting in Ukraine to prevent? To what extent do we in the West trust in the ability of Biden to force him to do so without risking an incalculable wider conflict?
As the escalations that Obama feared mount between Nato and Russia, it seems increasingly likely that Biden blundered badly last year when he paid scant attention to Putin’s attempts to force the US into constructive talks, backed up with a military mobilisation on the Ukrainian border.
The Presidents held two summits in 2021 with Ukraine and Nato on the agenda. They met in person in Geneva in June and conferred by video conference in December without apparent progress.
The same month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov formally laid out Moscow’s basic demands for the withdrawal of Nato forward forces from alliance members bordering Russia and irreversible denial of Nato membership to Ukraine.
When US and Russian envoys met in Geneva in January, the Americans said no more than that some of Nato’s deployments might be discussed but refused to budge on Ukraine. Since there was no follow-up, Putin struck into Ukraine on February 24. His forces are now sitting on their gains, undeterred by sanctions and the supply of Nato weapons to Ukraine’s army to keep the fight going.
While the entire West accused the Russians of unprovoked aggression, even Pope Francis suggested to the Corriere della Sera that it may have overreached. He said the ‘barking of Nato at Russia’s door’ may have forced Putin to invade after parading his army so demonstrably on the border.
It is not impossible that this is exactly what Washington wanted all along, knowing in advance how much resistance the Ukrainians, whom they advised and armed, were prepared to put up.
When the war began, US media quoted an anonymous US official as saying that ‘now we’ve got him where we want him’ – clearly an unprovoked aggressor, depending on how the lack of provocation was defined in a broader context.
Biden said last week that he worried Putin does not have a way out of the war, and that he was trying to ‘figure out what we do about that’. Accepting Finland and Sweden into Nato does not look like the answer when dealing with a leader as ruthless and conscious of Russia’s history with the West as Putin.
The shadow of nuclear war has been present over the conflict since it began. Adding the two Nordic countries to paranoid Russia’s encirclement does nothing to lessen it. Putin cannot expect to win a conventional war with the West. Committed to gaining Nato’s retreat, what other option would be open to him to save Russian credibility?
Western media and politicians have constantly accused Putin of wanting to rebuild the Soviet empire. But the fact is that Russia was not a European threat until Nato asked Ukraine to join and the US and the EU helped overturn the pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
Would an avoidable war have happened under a smart president like Obama had he led the American side at the 2021 summits, rather than one of whom it is said that he got every foreign policy decision wrong for the last 40 years?
Any idea that Russia can be cowed in its own corner and forgotten after a battlefield draw in Ukraine and significant new Nato expansion is absurd. President Zelensky has renounced Nato membership for now but this does not mean it will not be revived. Russia would not be Russia if Moscow accepted Nato’s right to hem almost the entire length of its Western border. The post-war is shaping to be as dangerous as the pre-war.