It wasn’t too long ago when President Barack Obama was the undisputed world leader since the end of the Cold War in 1989; he reigned over the greatest empire the world has ever known. But recently, he had become too complacent lording it over a unipolar world order, confident that the sun will never set on Pax Americana.
But little did Obama know that while he was basking in the glory of American exceptionalism, a militaristic Russia was slowly rising from the ashes of the defunct Soviet Union under the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy of dubious provenance and questionable morals.
Putin came to power in 1999 when then President Boris Yeltsin appointed him as Prime Minister. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin abruptly resigned and Putin became Acting President. He was elected President in 2000 and reelected in 2004. Constitutionally prohibited to run for a third term, Putin stepped down. Dmitry Medvedev was elected in 2008 and he appointed Putin as Prime Minister.
In 2008, Putin was termed out after serving two terms. He made a comeback in 2012 when he was elected to a third term. It was at that time that Putin had set his sights on the Soviet Union’s former republics and satellite states in what he calls as the “near abroad.”
An opportunity for Putin to show his mettle presented itself when Obama — in an apparent demonstration of weakness – did not act when Syria crossed the “red line” he drew on Syria’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels. By failing to respond with the use of military force against Syria’s use of banned chemical weapons, Obama sent the wrong message not only to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also to the entire world, particularly to al-Assad’s benefactor and protector, Vladimir Putin. Putin saw Obama’s wishy-washy hesitancy to act as an opening to engage him in geopolitical brinkmanship. And thus far, Putin is ahead in the game.
Their fight began when Putin sent Russian soldiers — with no identifying insignia on their uniforms — who came to be known as “little green men” – to Crimea. It didn’t take long for Putin to annex Crimea, which stunned the U.S. and her NATO allies. However, the U.S. and NATO had a chance to react with force to the Russian incursion – or as some say, “invasion” — but instead they stood down and allowed Putin to grab Crimea. This was a major victory for Putin because he could now deploy land-based nuclear missiles as well as missile-firing warships and submarines in the Black Sea that could reach NATO’s southern flank from Turkey to the Balkans, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Russia’s Crimean territorial grab diminished the U.S.’s credibility as the world’s superpower. For the first time since the end of World War II, the U.S. failed to protect her geopolitical interests since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the Soviet Union attempted to deploy nuclear missiles 90 miles from U.S. mainland. Simply put, with Putin breathing down NATO’s southern flank, it puts the 28-member Atlantic alliance on notice that Russia would be a power – economically and militarily — to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean Basin.
It did not then come as a surprise when it was announced that Russia is holding bilateral negotiations with Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt that could establish Russia’s military presence in the Mediterranean. Right now, Russia and Greece are in the midst of negotiating a financial bailout, which could result in Greece getting out of NATO and the European Union (EU). If that happens, it would break NATO’s defenses on her southern periphery.
Russia is also holding bilateral negotiations with another EU member, Cyprus, which is having financial problems. Russia is offering financial aid; however, she also wants to station air and naval assets on Cypriot ostensibly for “humanitarian” reasons. These Russian bases would be located near the Akrotiri Air base where British personnel are stationed to support ongoing operations in the Middle East, which makes one wonder: What would Cyprus do in the event Russia and NATO went to war? The specter of the tiny island of Cyprus becoming one bloody – and possibly nuclear — battlefield should be a good enough reason for Cyprus to reject Russian military presence on her territory.
Meanwhile, not too far away, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi gave Putin a “hero’s welcome” in Cairo. They discussed a slew of economic and military deals including the purchase of MiG-29 fighter jets and attack helicopters worth $3.5 billion. But the irony of this is that the U.S. had been sending billions in military aid to Egypt for the past three decades! Last year, the U.S.’s military aid to Egypt was $1.5 billion, which makes one wonder if the U.S. were indirectly subsidizing Egypt’s arms deal with Russia?
Last February 12, after a marathon 17-hour summit of Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, they agreed on a ceasefire and a number of measures to achieve peace in Ukraine. But no sooner had the ceasefire agreement been signed than Russian tanks, missile systems, and troops crossed the border into Ukraine.
Apparently, Merkel, Hollande, and Poroshenko had played into Putin’s game. The ceasefire called for heavy weapons from both sides to be withdrawn from a line drawn dividing the country into two regions – the government-occupied region on the western side and the Donbas region in the east controlled by the rebels. They agree to establish an “exclusion zone” – 200 kilometers long and 50-70 kilometers wide – separating the two sides that would be policed by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a “joint contact group” of Russian and Ukrainian military personnel. Heavy weapons would be withdrawn from the exclusion zone; however, ceasefire agreement allowed armed combatants to stay within their side of the exclusion zone, which is not unlike the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divided North and South Korea since 1953 when the Korean War Armistice was signed.
But the way Putin played his game is that whether the ceasefire would hold or not, he wins. A stalemate would result in a “frozen conflict,” just like what happened in Georgia and Moldova when Putin sent Russian “peacekeepers” – or occupation troops? — to preserve “peace” between these countries and the self-proclaimed republics that broke away.
Evidently, Obama lost Round 2 because he had a chance to take the bull by the horns when the Ukrainian government forces had the upper hand in fighting the Donetsk and Lugansk separatists. But due to Obama’s refusal to send lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend her territory, Poroshenko had to “surrender” the Donbas region to the Russian-backed separatists.
After Ukraine, what is Putin up to next? There are strong indications that Putin would try to reclaim the Soviet Union’s three former Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – and force them to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan formed as an economic union similar to the EU.
Interestingly, at the time the EEU was formed in January 2015, Russia made a proposal to Europe: “Dump the U.S. and join the Eurasian Economic Union.” While it may sound ludicrous, the way Putin had been playing his game of “deceive and conquer,” it may not be long before some European countries particularly those near Russia’s border would consider joining EEU as a means of self-preservation… unless the United States overcomes her fear of a resurgent Russia — whose unpredictable leader Vladimir Putin is bent in reclaiming Mother Russia’s glorious past – and use her might to stop Russian imperialism. But does Obama have the cojones to lead?
So far the scorecard shows 2-0 in favor of Putin. Can Obama survive Round 3?