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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Battle of the Heavyweights

headshot_niPresident Obama spends final days in office locking horns with Putin

As the American election season hits full steam, two titans are still trading blows. U.S. President Barack Obama, champion of the entrenched Democrats, and Vladimir Putin, hero-president of the Russians, have been trading blows since 2009. Now, this battle between heavyweights is in its final round. And it won’t be long until a new American champion enters the fray.  

Obama’s strategy regarding Russia has been a mixed bag of old party tricks. In response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, Obama has relied extensively on sanctions in concert with the EU, which have worked to an extent.

But economic warfare has an uncanny tendency to garner popular support against a common enemy, even while the country’s economy is weak. In this case, sanctions on Russia have had a relatively minor impact compared to the country’s economic woes that, according to many economists, have stemmed mostly from low oil prices unrelated to Western interference. But who do Russians blame for these bad conditions? The West and its sanctions.

In Syria, Obama was dealt a high card that lost to Putin’s pair of deuces. Putin’s brazen bombing campaign, acting jointly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on civilians and American-backed rebels, afforded leverage over any sort of American strategy that avoided boots on the ground.

This antagonistic power-play was exactly the response Russia needed following the Crimean annexation because it reaffirmed Russia’s status as a world-beater not hesitant to back up its aggressive words with actions. Putin has won the initial rounds. But America still has more hands to play.

At home, Obama will soon be replaced in the boxing ring. Between the two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton by far has the more hawkish policy on dealing with Russia. She backs a no-fly zone in Syria as a tactic to reduce Assad’s –– and, in turn, Russia’s –– air dominance in the besieged city of Aleppo and to leverage the Russians in a way that Obama has been unable to manage. It might just work.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has dominated the news with his comments endorsing Putin. Last year, Trump gave a defense for Putin’s implied assassination of dissident journalists. This past June, Trump offered Putin and his army of hackers a chance to interfere in the American election, urging them to dig into Clinton’s emails. Trump said in July, “there’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly.”

A counterargument may be raised: why don’t we try to be ‘friendly’ with Putin, lay aside our differences and create new goals together, as Trump seems to wish?

Here’s the answer: it undermines our powerful reputation as a military and diplomatic maverick. It automatically declares Russia the victor in Ukraine and Syria and gives Putin the precedent to continue pillaging without fear of military reprisal.

American admirers of Putin often point to his “strength” in contrast to Obama’s “weakness.” But latching onto Russia in a statement of solidarity would only make America weaker; we would be cozying up in an inferior position with a man who rigs elections, silences journalists and annexes territory in complete defiance of international law. American presidents typically avoid these behaviors for good reason.

In contrast to alliances with nations like Saudi Arabia, an alliance with Putin doesn’t have much strategic significance. The United States doesn’t need Russia serving as its gatekeeper to Europe (we have NATO and the EU for that) or even to Asia (thanks to Japan and other signatories to the beleaguered TPP).
Russian military brawn is unnecessary given traditional American military dominance. There simply isn’t much to gain from a Russo-American partnership.

The fight between Obama and Putin will continue when Obama’s successor ascends to the Oval Office in January. Putin isn’t leaving the ring anytime soon, and warming up to him is not the answer. It’s the next American president’s job to finally knock out the bear for good.

Written by: Nick Irvin –– ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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