Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 8 April 2022


Barack Obama Rewrites His Russia History

His claim that he was tough on Putin is contradicted by his eight-year record.


Former President Barack Obama in 2021.


Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has sparked an Olympic sprint of sorts as politicians run away from their abysmal records regarding Vladimir Putin. Few are running faster than former President Barack Obama, who this week tried to rewrite the history of his own Russia policies.

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“As somebody who grappled with the incursion into Crimea and the eastern portions of Ukraine, I have been encouraged by the European reaction [this time],” Mr. Obama said at an event in Chicago. “Because in 2014, I often had to drag them kicking and screaming to respond in ways that we would have wanted to see from those of us who describe ourselves as Western democracies.”

As for Mr. Putin, the former U.S. President purports to be surprised by the Russian leader’s brutality. “I don’t know that the person I knew is the same as the person who is now leading this charge. He was always ruthless. You witnessed what he did in Chechnya, he had no qualms about crushing those whom he considered a threat. That’s not new. For him to bet the farm in this way—I would not have necessarily predicted from him five years ago.”

Mr. Obama managed to say all this with a straight face while speaking at an event about “disinformation” in politics.

Start with Mr. Obama’s claim he was a champion of harsher measures against Russia after the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. His Administration imposed only mild, targeted sanctions on Russia—and then joined with Moscow to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. He refused to sell Javelin antitank weapons to Ukraine. Germany pushed ahead with its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in this era with nary a peep from Washington until the Trump Administration.

Mr. Obama also can’t claim as much ignorance as he does now about Mr. Putin’s intentions and methods at the time. Mr. Putin had risen to power allegedly by bombing apartment buildings in Russia, as U.S. intelligence no doubt knew or highly suspected, and even Mr. Obama concedes Mr. Putin’s 1999 assault on Grozny in Chechnya was “ruthless.”

There also were the 2006 assassinations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko, Mr. Putin’s provocative speech criticizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Munich in 2007, and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.

In 2009 Mr. Obama nonetheless dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva to negotiate a “reset” on relations with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. In 2012 Mr. Obama accused Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of hewing to a retrograde 1980s foreign policy for viewing Russia as a threat, while telling Putin henchman Dmitry Medvedev when he thought no one was listening that he’d have more latitude to cut Mr. Putin some slack after the U.S. election.

Some reset. In addition to the Crimea and Donbas invasions, 2014 saw the shoot-down of a Malaysian Airlines flight by Russia-linked forces in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s cluster bombing of Aleppo in Syria followed in 2015-16. Mr. Putin’s suppression of domestic dissent accelerated, and he amped up his rhetoric against NATO and an independent Ukraine. And don’t forget the meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, which Mr. Obama punished with wrist-slap sanctions only after Donald Trump won.

Mr. Obama’s main concession to Russian reality was to lobby NATO allies to increase their annual defense spending to 2% of GDP, although for the most part they ignored him. One can almost understand why they did, since they saw him cozying up to Mr. Putin on Iran while talking down the Russia threat.


All of this is relevant now because the Biden Administration is loaded with men and women who worked for Mr. Obama and shared his misjudgments about Russia. The conceit in many quarters on the left is that Mr. Putin has changed, or is deranged, such that his Ukraine invasion couldn’t have been foreseen.

But Mr. Obama’s weakness toward Russia, reinforced by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is one reason Mr. Putin felt he could act with increasing aggressiveness and get away with it. No one should believe Mr. Obama’s varnished Russia history.

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