President Donald Trump posed a question via Twitter on Wednesday morning: “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”
According to NATO expert Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council, he was — but there’s more to the story.
“Yes, Obama was too soft on Russia,” Benitez told Business Insider. “But so were Germany, France, the UK, the EU, the UN, and Congress.”
Benitez said that the international community’s treatment of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was “too soft” and “contributed to Putin’s willingness to attack Ukraine,” adding that the softness also added to “Putin’s willingness to break international treaties like the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) and probably attack another of his neighbours in the future.”
But the 2008 invasion of Georgia happened under President George W. Bush’s watch. James Jeffrey, former deputy national security adviser under Bush, told Business Insider that there’s “very little you can do” about Russian aggression.
Jeffrey said that the Russian swiping of Crimea was “unpredictable and unstoppable,” just like their move into Georgia, but Benitez says it was the US response to these moves by Russia that came off as too soft.
“The US and the international community had a lot of powerful non-military options to raise the cost to Russia and make it more willing to stop killing Ukrainians,” said Benitez. “Obama’s sanctions are so soft, some Russian legislators made fun of him and begged the US to sanction them.”
But the blame doesn’t lie with Obama alone. In 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Europe was buying almost 30% of their oil from Russia, and Europe remains Moscow’s main client for energy exports.
“Russia is so dependent on Europeans buying their energy, that if Europe did even a partial embargo and cut its energy purchases from Russia in half, it would have a crippling impact on the Russian economy and make it impossible for Putin to pay for his foreign aggression,” said Benitez.
Besides sanctions and diplomatic actions, the US had military options for confronting Russia in the wake of their land grabs, which had bipartisan support in Congress. “But Obama was too soft and refused to pursue” options like arming the Ukrainians, said Benitez.
Now, fighting and casualties have been on the rise in Ukraine, which is “strong evidence that Obama’s policy on Russia did not work,” said Benitez.
So while Obama certainly could have done more to counter Russia, an increasingly adversarial state, Trump has rarely, if ever in his campaign or presidency signalled that he may be tougher.
In fact, Trump’s administration finds itself under intense scrutiny after the revelation that former national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed the easing of Obama’s sanctions on Russia before the election, and that the Trump administration had been in contact with Russia during the campaign, which Russia influenced by leaking emails from the Democratic National Convention.
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