Russia: A Look at the Bear Obama Is Poking

It would be much too unkind to say President Barack Obama is a self-made man who worships his creator.  Yet it is true that he seems always to back into the limelight, a feat not likely to diminish.  After leaving the office of the presidency, Obama has promised to remain busy involved in "the amazing stuff that we've been doing all these years before." 

Understandably, Obama is concerned about his legacy.  The calculus and equation in Obama's legacy certainly includes "amazing stuff": the faulty nuclear deal with Iran, the nonexistent red line concerning the use of chemical weapons by Syria's President Assad in 2013 and Obama's policy toward the Syrian war and the horrors of Aleppo, and Obama's refusal to admit the responsibility of Islamists for international terrorism.

Moreover, that legacy will not be enhanced by Obama's recent actions.  The legacy will have to explain, if not to defend, the surprising moves by Obama in one week in December 2016 in two fields: attitude to Russia and policy toward Israel when he allowed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction to pass by not vetoing it.

It is unfortunately true that Obama leaves office at a time of the most tense relationship with Russia since the end of the Cold War.  On December 29, 2016, Obama expressed the view that Russian security agencies infiltrated email servers of the Democratic National Committee and private accounts including that of John Podesta.  Yet so far, even accepting that intrusion by cyberspace could have been directed only by the highest levels of a foreign government, hard evidence is still not available that the Russian government is the culprit.  Nor can it be asserted that the outcome of the U.S. presidential election was decided by hacking, nor that the popular vote was tampered with in favor of Donald Trump.

An independent, non-partisan commission to investigate hacking in regard to the election is to be set up.  President-Elect Trump has been skeptical of the attribution of blame to Russia.  But before certainty on the issue has been obtained, Obama imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies, GRU, Russia's main intelligence directorate, and the FSB, or the Federal Security Service, the new form of the KGB.  Obama has also sanctioned companies said to support GRU cyber-operations, expelled 35 officials suspected of being intelligence operatives from the US, and closed two recreational compounds.

U.S. sanctions on Russia remain.  Essentially, they blocked Russian access to international credit, prevented cooperation on oil field technology, and ended arms deals.  However, many of the restrictions on Russia were imposed by executive order and therefore can be reversed by President Trump.

It was not clear if the principle of reciprocity would apply.  Vladimir Putin refused to retaliate, though Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that 31 U.S. diplomats be expelled from Moscow and four from St. Petersburg.  Instead, Putin invited children of U.S. diplomats to enjoy New Year's and Russian Orthodox Christmas at the Kremlin.

Putin, if not exactly Santa Claus, announced he would not expel U.S. diplomats, but would rebuild ties with the U.S.  Trump's comment was that this was a great move by Putin, whom he regards as very smart.  The crucial fact is that Obama, whatever his motives, has left Trump the problem of ameliorating arrangements, the need to work out a compromise between the two countries,  and the limiting of sanctions.  Trump's task will take into account not only Democrats, but also the different views and the tension between Republicans such as John Mccain, who calls Putin a thug and a murderer, and the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who may be an Eagle Scout but has had multiple business dealings with Putin. 

Did Obama deliberately, for political or psychological reasons, limit the options for Trump?  In any case, the vital need is for cooperation in fighting international terrorism in general and ISIS in particular.  Obama's ostracizing of GRU and the FSB will limit that cooperation between the two countries.

This is the moment for accurate analysis and assessment of Russia and of the policies and motivation of Putin.  The fall of the totalitarian Soviet Union in 1991 did not usher in a democratic political system or open society or free market.  Today, Russia is more pragmatic than ideological.  Private ownership created businesses, and a substantial middle class emerged.  Foreign travel became more available.  There was some limited free press, while the internet was available.  Young women on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg dress as attractively, if not as expensively, as their counterparts on Madison Avenue in New York.

But democracy was limited, and political parties reflected the Kremlin's point of view.

In the economic field, oligarchs have been prominent – entrepreneurs who accumulated capital and were friendly to and have access and links to political power and leaders.  That new elite dominates the market, but the regime is ruthless, as was shown with the arrest of Mikhael Khodorkovsky and the taking over of his company, Yukos, whose assets were seized by Rosneft, the state oil company.

Changes in Russia are relevant for U.S. policy.  The population, aging and decreasing, is now 144 million.  Between 2005 and 2015 there has been a large increase in government.  The share of GDP from public spending and state-controlled firms rose from 35 to 70%.  Yet the economy is diminishing due to sanctions, corruption, and above all the drop in the price of oil, since Russia is dependent on raw materials.  More than two thirds of Russian exports come from energy, and the Russian budget presumes oil at $96.

But Russia also has the world's largest inventory of nuclear weapons.  It is one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.  Symbolically, Putin, as an expert at judo, is adept at keeping foes off balance.  Russia is engaged in aggression against Ukraine and Georgia, espionage, influence in the war in Syria, subversion by supporting anti-establishment parties in Europe, propaganda, and cyber-attacks.  The country is sixth in global spending on defense.  Annually, it spends $48.4 billion, less than one tenth of the U.S.'s $622 billion.

There is no question of Putin's desire to maintain and exercise power.  Trump admires him.  Putin is powerful, if not as powerful as Vladimir the Great, the tenth-century Slavic prince who was based in Kiev, whose statue is near the Kremlin and whose nationalistic legacy was relied on to justify the annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Putin stopped direct regional elections, appointed his own representatives to the regions, and destroyed the principle of federalism as he concentrated power.  Yet Putin is not a tyrant, though he has engaged in selective violence, murder, and rigged elections.

It appears that Putin is not taking Obama seriously and is waiting to build ties with Trump in a framework of bilateral cooperation and collaboration.  Both countries naturally have their different versions of national interest, and difficult problems and misunderstandings will remain.  But what is overwhelmingly important is that both Putin and Trump have similar interests in maintaining peace and international stability and ending the menace of Islamic terrorism.  Already American and Russian corporations are interrelated: ExxonMobil oil and gas are in the Russian Arctic, and there are joint projects such as Sakhalin 1.  The case for rapprochement between the two countries is formidable.