On the last full day of his Presidency, US President Obama was unable to resist meddling once more in the future policies of the incoming Donald Trump administration.
Obama’s comments unsurprisingly once more bring together his criticisms of the two men in the world whom he most viscerally objects to, and who it is clear in his own mind he has conflated: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Equally unsurprisingly, Obama’s comments concerned the issue of sanctions, which for him as for many others have become a symbol of the bad relationship between the US and Russia, which goes far beyond any objective assessment of their actual effectiveness.
Obama’s comments related to the hint in Donald Trump’s recent interview with The London Times and Bild-Zeitung that he might lift sanctions on Russia in return for Russia’s agreement to a deal over nuclear weapons. Here is what Obama is reported to have said
Russia continues to occupy Ukrainian territory and meddle in Ukrainian affairs. I think it would probably best serve, not only American interests, but also the interests of preserving international norms if we made sure that we don’t confuse why these sanctions have been imposed with a whole set of other issues. It is important for the United States to stand up for the basic principal that big countries don’t go around and invade and bully smaller countries.
The suggestion that the US should punish other countries for “invading and bullying smaller countries” will provoke a cynical shrug in Moscow, as it will in most places around the world, especially so coming from Obama in light of his role in destroying Libya in 2011.
Nonetheless it is possible to see where Obama is coming from. It is little short of astonishing that Trump never mentioned either Ukraine or Crimea anywhere in his interview even though he had ample opportunity to do so. With Obama’s reputation heavily bound up with the Ukrainian conflict, it is unsurprising that he along with many other Western commentators and officials is alarmed by this.
Ultimately however Obama’s comment shows why Western policy towards Russia has been so unsuccessful.
When making this comment at a press conference Obama professed support for Trump’s attempt to secure nuclear arms reduction with Moscow
I was prepared to go further, I told President Putin I was prepared to go further. They have been unwilling to negotiate….. If President-elect Trump is able to restart those talks in a serious way, I think there remains a lot of room for our two countries to reduce our stockpiles
The Russians are strenuously denying Obama’s suggestion that they stood in the way of further nuclear arms reductions. RT reports Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, saying the following
The Russian side always favoured a proportional and fair process of nuclear disarmament. It can’t be disproportional. It shouldn’t and mustn’t lead to the breach in nuclear parity, which is vitally important for global stability and security, that’s why we can’t agree with it [Obama’s statement].
It is in fact possible to reconcile the statements. The point Peskov is making is that Russian cannot agree to further nuclear arms reductions whilst the anti ballistic missile interceptors the US has positioned in Eastern Europe remain in place, because they threaten what would be left of Russia’s strategic deterrent force and upset the balance of power. The Russians have repeatedly called for these anti ballistic missile systems to be withdrawn, and have made it clear that they will not agree to further nuclear weapons reductions unless they are.
The Obama administration has completely refused to recognise Russian concerns about this issue. Instead – as over Ukraine or regime change in Syria – its view is that Russia should simply agree to whatever the US wants. With a country like Russia that sort of approach can never work, which is why instead of achieving the improvement in relations with Russia which Obama promised at the start of his Presidency, he instead brought them to crisis.
It remains to be seen whether with his very different approach Donald Trump will be able to do better.