Not since Rosa Klebb attacked James Bond with exotic darts in her boots have Americans been so obsessed with evil Russians. Hillary Clinton fans blame Vladimir Putin for her defeat; President Obama warns that Russia is trying to “weaken us,” and John McCain says Moscow is out to “destroy democracy.”
At the same time, the country has been riveted by titillating materials purporting to show that Russia has the goods on Donald Trump, unnerved by reports that incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has had private conversations with the Russian ambassador, and alarmed by CIA Director John Brennan’s warnings that Trump doesn’t have a “full understanding” of Russia’s capabilities and intentions.
Why this reversion to Cold War anxieties? Four reasons: First, Russia has become a convenient scapegoat for Clinton’s defeat (along with Comey, and “fake news” and racism and GOP “voter suppression” and the Electoral College). Second, President Obama failed to take cyber warfare seriously for eight years even as the intrusions from Russia, China, North Korea, the Syrian Electronic Army, Iran and elsewhere became bolder and costlier, finally emerging as an unacceptable effort to sway our election. Third, Donald Trump’s assertions that Putin is smart (as he indeed is) and a strong leader (also true) have allowed critics to portray the President-elect as somehow besotted by and in league with the Russian strongman.
Four, Putin is indeed evil and always has been. But, it is not Trump who has been naive about the threat from Russia. That dubious honor belongs to President Obama. In 2012 when Mitt Romney said Russia was our number one geopolitical foe, Obama mocked him saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Obama still had a lot to learn.
Nonetheless, Trump opponents, including some in the GOP, are piling on, hinting that his cabinet nominees have nefarious ties to Russia. A righteous Marco Rubio feigned astonishment that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, would not declare Putin a “war criminal” based on Russian attacks on Syrian civilians. Surely Florida’s junior senator knows that no responsible candidate for our top diplomatic post would take such an undiplomatic stance.
Tillerson’s transgression is that under his leadership, Exxon Mobil has acquired interests in Russia’s Arctic, the Black Sea and Western Siberia, in partnership with state-owned Rosneft, led by a close Putin ally. Given that Russia ranks eighth in proven world oil reserves, and that the country has historically relied on western technology to produce oil in challenging regions like the Arctic, it follows that Exxon would work to secure access to reserves in Russia – something that most leading oil companies have done, and that would be impossible without a local partner.
Why explore in a hostile land? In 2015 Exxon Mobil was unable to replace the oil and natural gas it produced for the first time in twenty-one years. Easy-to-access oil reserves are increasingly rare and much has been put off limits due to environmental concerns. Russia has potential. Tillerson and other industry executives have had to balance the risks of operating in a country without the rule of law against providing shareholders a diminishing asset.
Make no mistake; every U.S. CEO is well aware of the dangers of operating in Russia, or any other unfriendly country. They are routinely briefed by our intelligence agencies (who also seek information gleaned by U.S. firms abroad) and in addition hire outside advisors that specialize in political information before committing shareholder funds.
To protect its interests, Exxon Mobil lobbied against various sanctions in recent years that threatened its Russian operations. That’s what companies do.
At the heart of all the Sturm und, Drang about Russia is a desperate and absurd effort to undermine Donald Trump by making him out to be an ignorant and willing tool of Putin’s aggression. While the indignant New York Times has fulminated about Trump’s “embrace” of Putin, even they had to acknowledge that his nomination of James Mattis to be his Secretary of Defense points in another direction. Mattis has long been outspoken on the dangers posed by Russia, and reiterated his position during recent Senate hearings, declaring the country to be the number one threat to U.S. interests. Does The Times not think Trump knew of Mattis’ hard-headed position? That he picked his name out of a hat?
Like Obama, President-elect Trump has proposed that a good working relationship with Russia would be a positive for the U.S. After all, that was what Hillary Clinton’s “reset” was supposed to achieve. Obama in effect welcomed such a partnership when he asked Putin to take over the disposal of Bashar al-Assad’s cache of chemical weapons in Syria, and just recently reiterated that ambition, saying at a press conference in Germany he hopes Trump will find “areas where we can cooperate with Russia, where our values and interests align.”
At that same forum, Obama also said he hoped that his successor “would stand up to Russia.” That, of course, is what the White House failed to do. President Obama once promised that Vladimir Putin would pay for his sins by being isolated by the international community, but he then rescued Russia from that very isolation by inviting Moscow to resolve Syria’s chemical weapons issue. He also asked for Russia’s acquiescence in his legacy Iran nuke deal, allowing Putin to become the major power broker in the Middle East.
There were good reasons for Clinton to attempt a reset with Russia. We need allies in the fight against ISIS and Russia fears Islamic terrorism as much as we do. However, Putin, who like all bullies respects only strength, did not respect President Obama. The White House could have adopted a more robust playbook by accelerating natural gas exports to undermine Russia’s energy grip on Western Europe, for instance. Or we might have committed troops to the Baltic states earlier on, reinforcing our commitment to our NATO allies. Only recently has Obama allowed that show of force.
The bottom line is that our relations with Russia under Obama have been hostage to his legacy ambitions – primarily the Iran deal. This was a conflict of interest second to none presented by Trump or his incoming cabinet.