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Getting Moscow Wrong — to Our Peril
President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their bilateral meeting. Credit: AP

Getting Moscow Wrong — to Our Peril

Russia sees the U.S. as vacillating, weak and responsible for chaos across the greater Middle East. The West needs to take Russia's critique seriously, not only to understand Russian policy, but to address the Obama administration's failures.

Over the weekend, the United States and Russia criticized one another over Russia’s support for Damascus. As Syria’s foreign minister noted on Russian television, Moscow's military support to Syria in fighting jihadists will "show up America's lack of a clear strategy.” Monday, a host on "BBC Newshour" implied that Russia is to solely to blame for the poor state of U.S.-Russia strategic relations, which, according to her, began to sour when Russia supported armed violence in Ukraine in 2014. This analysis fails to understand legitimate Russian complaints about President Barack Obama’s feckless foreign policy leadership since at least the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Russia yearns to be a strategic competitor — or at least a strategic peer — to the West. There is no doubt that the Vladimir Putin regime is authoritarian, bullying its own citizens and, at times, its neighbors. However, Moscow does have an extremely realistic and sophisticated view of international affairs. Moscow’s critique of Washington is worth considering.

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their bilateral meeting. Credit: AP President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. (AP) 

Moscow blames the U.S. for inciting chaos across Europe, the greater Middle East and Central Asia — at least since Obama took office. Moscow has a long list of complaints, but here are the most significant ones.

● The U.S. and its allies lied to Russia by overthrowing Gadhafi. Russia supported UN Security Council Resolution 1970, which imposed sanctions on Gadhafi and referred the regime to the International Criminal Court, only on the express condition that there not be armed intervention. Of course, NATO intervention occurred and Libya disintegrated into a bloody civil war that shows no signs of abating. Moreover, Gadhafi’s arms depots were raided and sophisticated weapons, including shoulder-launched missiles (man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS) have spread across the region, allegedly ending up in the hands of terrorists from Mali to the Palestinian territories. Libya’s decimation has exacerbated instability across the region.

● Russia similarly blames the U.S. for not following through on its security commitments in Central Asia. Although then-candidate Obama claimed in 2007-08 that Afghanistan was the “right war” — in contrast to the “wrong war” in Iraq — nonetheless, the Obama administration has been committed to getting out of Afghanistan since taking office. This was evidenced by an immediate security review of Afghanistan upon taking office, despite the fact that a review had just been completed by many of the same people a few months before. The tepid commitment by this administration to really throttle terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the region demonstrates a lack of resolve on regional security.

● As Arab News opines, although Russia smugly laughs at the United States’ inability to have a consistent pro-democracy policy in the greater Middle East (e.g., Egypt, the authoritarian Gulf monarchies), Moscow reserves its greatest scorn for what it considers to be U.S. inconsistency on Iraq. Russia’s perspective is that Obama cut and run, leaving Baghdad in a weak position and the region insecure. The lack of a secure Iraq combined with the West fanning the flames of the destabilizing second Arab Spring created a power vacuum. Into that void stepped a variety of Islamist actors, including what used to be al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, Islamic State.

● According to al Jazeera, Russia feels that the U.S. is primarily to blame for the rise and success of Islamic State in multiple ways. The U.S. toppled the strong regime of Saddam Hussein and then was responsible for the radicalization of the Sunni populace due to their oppression by the Shia majority. The United States did a poor job of securing weapons, leading to a highly armed and bloodthirsty population. The U.S. and its allies, such as Turkey, did little to stop incitement and migration of terrorists from across the Muslim world. And the West has tried to erode all support for the one secular leader really fighting the Islamic State — Bashar al Assad.

● And it's not just Russia’s view of American meddling in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Most importantly, Russia sees the Obama administration as unrealistic, idealistic and weak. President Obama can deliver a pretty speech, but where is the action? The U.S. establishes red-lines and then backs away. The U.S. promises its allies support, such as missile defense, and then reconsiders. The U.S. cannot seem to rally many of its allies to action, as evidenced the unwillingness of American partners like Turkey and the Gulf States to fight the Islamic State on the ground. The U.S. mocks its friends (Israel) but extends an open hand to its enemies (Iran).

This explains why Russia feels confident violating the sea lanes and air space of its neighbors, supporting secessionist and revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe and undergirding the Assad regime. Russia is not just acting with bravado; it is demonstrating a calculated, opportunistic, tough foreign policy based on its analysis of American uncertainty.

Eric Patterson, Ph.D., is dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including "Ethics at War’s End" and "Ending Wars Well."

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