Was Obama Too Soft on Russia?

President Trump is not the first to make this claim.

Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

President Trump on Thursday appeared to suggest that his immediate predecessor’s Russia policy resulted in Russian’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

As a candidate, Donald Trump suggested he would recognize the annexation—a position his spokesman, Sean Spicer, contradicted Tuesday when he said Trump “expects the Russian government to … return Crimea.” But leaving aside confusion about the current administration’s Russia policy, is Trump right about the previous one’s?

There are two parallel narratives here: one political; the other historical.

First, the political: In 2012, Mitt Romney, who at the time was seeking the presidency, called Russia the United States’s Number 1 “geopolitical foe.” He was roundly mocked for his assessment, including by President Obama, who was then seeking re-election. Just three years earlier, the Obama administration famously “reset” U.S. relations with Russia that had been damaged by Moscow’s conflict with the former Soviet republic of  Georgia. As part of this initiative, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with what was intended to be a “reset” button. A translation error rendered the Russian word on the button “overload” instead—a term perhaps more reflective of the turn U.S.-Russian relations took in subsequent years.

Despite their public displays of working together, Washington and Moscow did not always share the same worldview. Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister in 2011, likened the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya to the “crusades.” Seeing the chaos that followed the ouster of longstanding, brutal dictators decided to throw its weight behind one, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally who at one point seemed would go the way of others, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and, to a lesser extent, Hosni Mubarak. [Mark N. Katz breaks down Russia’s view of the Arab Spring protests in different countries here.]

But notwithstanding Russia’s eventual military involvement in Syria, which put it and the U.S. on opposite sides of that country’s conflict, the major point of contention between the two countries was Europe—most importantly which European countries Russia regarded as being part of its sphere of influence were being inducted into the European Union and, worse, NATO.

Obama’s response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in March 2014, and Moscow’s subsequent support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine was economic sanctions. Although the measures had an impact on the Russian economy, they were seen as woefully inadequate by some Republican lawmakers in Congress. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a harsh critic of Obama’s foreign policy, wanted the U.S. to send arms to Ukraine. But Obama viewed the Ukraine conflict through another lens. As Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, wrote in the Obama Doctrine:  “Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.” Indeed, Obama told Jeff: “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” Despite their criticism of Obama, the Republican platform ahead of the 2016 presidential election didn’t call for U.S. weapons to be sent to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels.

Here’s where the historical narrative comes in: part of it deals with what Russia says it was promised by the West at the end of the Cold War; the other part deals with how Russia views Ukraine, in general, and Crimea, in particular.

At the end of the Cold War, Russia says, the United States promised it that NATO, the post-World War II anti-Soviet military alliance that has been the bedrock of Western security, wouldn’t expand “one inch eastward.” The U.S. denies this is true, arguing there was never an explicit promise. In any event, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia—former Warsaw Pact countries allied with Russia—as well as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all now NATO members, which grants them collective protection in the event of an attack by an external actor, presumably Russia.

Additionally, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia,  Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia are also members of the European Union. Russia watched unhappily as its once vast sphere of influence dwindled. What brought matters to a head was Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, which the Ukrainian government was scheduled to sign in late 2013. That agreement would have ultimately resulted in a free-trade deal between the EU and Ukraine, meaning the former Soviet republic would have moved away from its largest trading partner, Russia.

Russia’s cultural and political relations with Ukraine dates back centuries, and Moscow persuaded the Ukrainian government of the time to suspend the signing of the agreement. Massive protests followed, ultimately leading to the ouster of the government. Months later, Russia invaded Crimea. Many Russians maintain Crimea was never Ukrainian in the first place. It was, they say, a historically Russian region that was given away in 1954 by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to a fellow Soviet republic, who likely believed, as most people at the time did, that the Soviet Union would live forever.

Following the invasion, Russia went on to lend military support to pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, sparking a conflict that continues to this day—one that Russian has been repeatedly sanctioned over by the U.S. and its allies.

So, could Obama have stopped Russia? Perhaps. After the Cold War, American presidents appear to have believed that Russia should act in a manner reflecting the U.S. worldview. But Russia has consistently defended its own interests—whether it was backing Serbia during the NATO conflict in the Clinton era, invading Georgia during the Bush years, or Ukraine in Obama’s presidency. Russia has shown repeatedly that it’s willing to use its military—and other means—to protect what it sees as its sphere of influence.