Today brings the tenth anniversary of that famously mortifying scene in which President Obama’s first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, presented Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, with a big red plastic button meant to symbolize a “reset” in U.S.- Russia relations. As Lavrov pointed out at the time, the gift was mislabeled, adorned not with the Russian word for “reset” (perezagruzka), but the Russian word for “overcharge” (peregruzka).
These days, the Russian Foreign Ministry keeps the button on display (still mislabeled) in a diplomatic museum on the ministry’s premises — less a souvenir of U.S.-Russian camaraderie than a symbol of American folly.
Obama’s plan was to reverse the cooling of U.S.-Russian relations that had set in under his predecessor, President George W. Bush. The problem, however, lay not with the U.S., but with a resurgently aggressive Russia under the reign of Vladimir Putin, to whom an aging Boris Yeltsin had turned over the powers of the Russian presidency on New Year’s Eve, 1999. By the time Obama took office, in 2009, Russia’s rising threat was already spelled out in such horrors as the 2006 murder in London of a former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, his tea spiked with radioactive polonium-210. During Bush’s final year in office, in 2008, Russia had launched a war with the neighboring country of Georgia. The time had come for the U.S. superpower, leader of the Free World, to draw a line.
Instead, Obama rolled out a red carpet of appeasement, effectively inviting Vladimir Putin to press ahead with the consolidation of despotic rule at home and the reincarnation of Cold-War-style threats and aggression abroad. Obama’s 2009 reset came not only with a big red button, but, in deference to Putin’s wishes, the betrayal of American allies in Eastern Europe. Obama shelved the installation of missile defense systems promised by Bush to Poland and the Czech Republic.
In July 2009, Obama went to Moscow, where he breakfasted on caviar with Putin and emerged to praise him for “the extraordinary work you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people.” At the time, Putin was not officially Russia’s president, but its prime minister — though quite clearly he was still the real power in Russia. The change of office was a dodge to get around term limits on the Russian presidency, a dos y dos in which the former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev served officially from 2008-2012 as president, while Putin, as premier, and burgeoning dictator, still ran the show. Obama not only accepted this arrangement, but effectively endorsed it at the time, offering Medvedev the farcical comment, while effusing about Putin, “I had a good conversation with the prime minister and I think his approach to the issues is very similar to yours.”
That setup led to the moment during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign in which Obama, running for reelection, was caught on an open microphone confiding to Medvedev that after the election he would have “more flexibility.” To which Medvedev replied: “I will transmit this information to Vladimir [Putin].” It was also during the 2012 campaign that Obama effectively ran defense for Putin by ridiculing Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s warning that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Obama’s response was to mock Romney as a dinosaur of the 1980s, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
During Obama’s second term, Putin — once again officially president of Russia — availed himself on manifold fronts of Obama’s flexibility. Putin gave asylum in the summer of 2013 to the rogue U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who, in a heist devastating to U.S. intelligence, absconded to Russia via Hong Kong with the playbook of the U.S. National Security Agency. Obama made a feeble show of protest, canceling plans for a bilateral meeting with Putin during a trip to Russia for a meeting of the G-20, but attending the G-20 nonetheless, with Putin presiding.
En route to that 2013 meeting in Russia, Obama began erasing the red line he’d drawn over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. Upon return from Russia, Obama turned over to Putin the project of overseeing, in tandem with international inspectors, the Assad regime’s surrender of its chemical arsenal. Over the next few years, Putin seized on this arrangement not to disarm Assad, but to be a portal for post-Soviet Russia’s re-entry with military force — troops, bombers, and warships — into the Middle East.
In 2014, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine and began encroaching with force on additional turf in eastern Ukraine. Once again, Obama protested, imposing a number of sanctions, but then shrugged off Russia’s aggression as a show of weakness, the act of a flailing “regional power.” Intent on pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran, for which the negotiations were getting underway in Vienna, Obama was more interested in keeping Russia in its seat as a major player at the Iran nuclear talks than in rolling back Putin’s huge plunder of territory in Eastern Europe.
Small wonder that by 2016 Putin felt free to engage in hacking and leaking during the U.S. presidential campaign. Obama’s approach, as he himself described it, was to tell Putin during a meeting in China in early Sept. 2016 to “cut it out.” And then, when Donald Trump won the election, Obama and his team unleashed the insinuations that have since translated into far worse difficulties for Trump than any burden Obama ever imposed on Putin.
By the time Trump took office, just over two years ago, a greatly emboldened Russia had effectively digested Crimea, was engaged on a rapidly expanding scale in joint military exercises with China, was energetically cultivating such clients in the Western Hemisphere as the USSR’s old comrade Cuba and Putin’s pals in Venezuela, and was militarily entrenched in Syria as a mainstay of the Assad regime. At the United Nations, in Security Council wrangles over world hot spots, Russian diplomats were routinely rivaling their Soviet predecessors in their antipathy to America and the democratic values of the Free World.
From there we can draw a line to more recent news, such as Russia’s 2018 poisoning with chemical weapons, in Salisbury, UK, of former Russian military intelligence officer and UK double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Or to Russia’s violations over the past decade of the 1987 INF arms control treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles (violations that finally led Trump last month to announce he is officially withdrawing the U.S. from the INF Treaty). Or the Senate testimony this week of the top U.S. commander in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who warned of ever-increasing Russian aggression — he called Russia the primary threat to stability in the Euro-Atlantic theater. Or Putin’s threat this week that Moscow is ready for a new “Cuban missile” crisis, a threat accompanied by Russian state television listing U.S. military facilities that Moscow, now developing a super high-speed missile, would target for nuclear strikes.
So much for the Obama reset. About eight years ago, Lavrov was asked on Russian television what he felt about the original, mislabeled button presented by Clinton. Lavrov replied that he thought it was “a rather witty gesture.” Some joke.