President Barack Obama attends a ceremony at The Flanders Field American World War I Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, Belgium. (Reuters)
The Hague, March 26: Amid the chest-thumping between President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in recent weeks, one question has lingered: How big a threat is Russia, anyway?
Mitt Romney, Obama’s 2012 presidential challenger, made clear his own assessment during the campaign, saying repeatedly that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and arguing that Putin’s aggressive stance demanded a similar response from the American President.
Yesterday, Obama offered his answer, saying that Putin leads a “regional power” whose real threat extends largely to its bordering nations. In language that seemed to be aimed at the highest ranks inside the Kremlin, Obama dismissed Russia as a country that is lashing out at its neighbours “not out of strength, but out of weakness”.
Obama’s decision to engage a reporter’s question about Romney during a foreign trip suggests that the President was eager to deflect criticism at home that he has been na´ve about his approach to Putin. In Obama’s first term, he pursued a “reset” in relations with Russia, and during the campaign, he mocked Romney, saying during a televised debate that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back”.
In recent weeks, as Putin’s forces rolled through Crimea with little regard to warnings by Obama, Republicans have said Romney has been vindicated, and Obama proved wrong. In February, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s 2008 rival, called him “the most na´ve President in history”.
After Russian troops began taking control of Crimea, Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee, took credit for predicting it. “Yes, I could see this one from Alaska,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “I’m usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did, despite my accurate prediction being derided as ‘an extremely far-fetched scenario’ by the ‘high-brow’ Foreign Policy magazine.”
And Sunday, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Romney echoed McCain’s assertion that the President had been na´ve about Russia.
“His faulty judgment about Russia’s intentions and objectives has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face,” Romney said. “This is not fantasy land. They are not our enemy but an adversary on the world stage.”
Seizing his news conference with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands as a platform to respond, the President yesterday explained his thinking about Putin and the country he governs, saying that the influence of Russia on the world stage has languished since the breakup of the Soviet Union. He said the situation in Ukraine in recent weeks proved that he is right.
“The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” Obama said.
Internally, that is the blunt assessment by the US of Putin: He is, according to the President’s national security team, someone whose bluster about his closest neighbours can be backed up with action. And they view Russia’s actions — or inaction — as critical to resolving some of the world’s most enduring conflicts far beyond Russia’s borders.
But despite Russia’s vast Cold War arsenal, the administration does not view the country as an existential threat to the American homeland. Yesterday, Obama again rejected Romney’s assertion, though he misquoted the former Republican governor slightly, saying that Russia does not “pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States.”