Russia, its leaders boast, is an ascendant superpower. This, they say, entitles it to a certain amount of respect from the West, especially after it was sidelined during the prelude to Iraq and its neighbors were ushered into NATO—grievances that still chafe today.
But if Russia wants to be regarded as a “normal nation,” to use the argot of foreign policy wonks, it needs to behave like one, and normal nations do not invade sovereign countries and then foment destabilizing wars in them. They don’t launch massive cyber-attacks against existing powers and then play dumb when evidence of their malfeasance surfaces. They don’t purport to be fighting terrorism and then cede the Syrian city of Palmyra to the Islamic State. They don’t intervene in other nations’ elections (a lesson our own leaders need to learn, too).
So, yes, Russia is an international troublemaker, and news that it hacked into the emails of various Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s past time the United States let it be known that Russia’s mischief will not be tolerated, especially its warfare via what I’m told experts refer to as “The Cyber.”
But President Obama’s retaliatory measures against Moscow, announced yesterday, are not the way to go about it.
Obama is ejecting from the United States 35 Russian officials who are allegedly engaged in espionage, which, if true, means they should have been expelled years ago. He’s closing two estates, one in New York and the other on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, used for Russian intelligence purposes. And he’s placing sanctions on Russia’s two preeminent intelligence services and four of its officials, even though, as the New York Times reports, the spooks in question “rarely travel to the United States, or keep assets here.”
One hates to agree with a member of the Duma, but Konstantin Kosachyov is right when he says “this is the agony not even of ‘lame ducks,’ but of ‘political corpses.’” As with everything else he’s ever done, Obama’s blows against Russia have a thudding political heartbeat beneath them. They are intended more to hem in President-elect Donald Trump, an advocate of enhanced relations with Russia, than accomplish anything useful.
The measures are perfunctory at best: previous sanctions haven’t squeezed the Russian economy—it’s taken a fracking revolution to do that—because sanctions are an unwieldy instrument that almost always backfire, and this latest flesh wound (four whole officials!) will be no different. Instead, Putin will be handed a fresh grievance to wield against the West and cement his rule back home. And then the initiatives will likely evaporate anyway thanks to Trump, who’s never been one to let Washington opinion sway him, and who can strike the measures just as easily as Obama birthed them.
In response to Obama’s expulsion of the 35 Russians, Putin issued a statement that reads in part, “Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-U.S. relations based on the policies of the Trump administration.” And why shouldn’t he? Putin only has to wait three weeks until he has a president who’s far more amenable to his aims. Obama sat pretty for eight years as Russia amped up its cyber-warfare, yet now he decides to act? They have to be laughing in the Kremlin, louder than they already were.
These pinprick measures bear all the hallmarks of Obama’s foreign policy, which, with a few exceptions (the Iran deal, Cuba), has managed to be both needlessly bellicose and risibly ineffective at the same time. Rather than stay out of Syria’s pointless civil war, Obama drew a red line he had no intention of enforcing. Rather than make his position on Netanyahu’s Israel clear, he spent eight years protecting the Israelis at the UN only to open a trapdoor underneath them at the last minute. And now, rather than formulating something coherent on Russia, he’s pulled the most ungainly implements out of his tool kit, dropped them on the floor, and then hightailed it for the door.
Consequently, America appears dazed and confused, while Russia, masking its gaunt economy, struts about the globe, striking peace in Syria and playing the adult against Obama. Which, of course, is exactly how Putin likes it.