On Sept. 5, 2014, Russian agents crossed into Estonia and kidnapped an Estonian security official. Last week, after a closed trial, Russia sentenced him to 15 years.
The reaction? The State Department issued a statement. The NATO secretary-general issued a tweet. Neither did anything. The European Union said it was too early to discuss any possible action.
The timing of this brazen violation of NATO territory – two days after President Obama visited Estonia to symbolize America’s commitment to its security – is testimony to Vladimir Putin’s contempt for the American president. He knows Obama will do nothing. Why should he think otherwise?
▪ Putin breaks the arms embargo to Iran by lifting the hold on selling it S-300 missiles. Obama responds by saying it wasn’t technically illegal.
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▪ Russia mousetraps Obama at the eleventh hour of the Iran negotiations, joining Iran in demanding that the conventional-weapons and ballistic-missile embargos be dropped. Obama caves.
▪ Putin invades Ukraine, annexes Crimea, breaks two Minsk cease-fire agreements and erases the Russia-Ukraine border. Obama’s response? Pinprick sanctions, empty threats and a continuing refusal to supply Ukraine with defensive weaponry, lest he provoke Putin.
It is true that Putin’s resentment over Russia’s lost empire long predates Obama. But for resentment to turn into revanchism requires opportunity. Which is exactly what Obama’s “reset” policy has offered over the past six and a half years.
Since the end of World War II, Russia has known that what stands in the way of westward expansion was not Europe, but the United States as guarantor of Western security. Obama’s naivete and ambivalence have put those guarantees in question.
It began with the reset button, ostentatiously offered less than two months after Obama’s swearing-in. Followed six months later by the unilateral American cancellation of the missile shield the Poles and the Czechs had agreed to install on their territory. Again, lest Putin be upset.
By 2012, a still clueless Obama mocked Mitt Romney for saying that Russia is “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” quipping: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Turned out it was 2015 calling. Last month, Obama’s choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.” Two weeks ago, the retiring Army chief of staff, Raymond Odierno, called Russia our “most dangerous” military threat. Obama’s own secretary of defense has gone one better: “Russia poses an existential threat to the United States.”
Helped immensely by Obama’s epic misjudgment of Russian intentions, the balance of power has shifted – and America’s allies feel it.
And not just the East Europeans. The president of Egypt, a country estranged from Russia for 40 years and our mainstay Arab ally in the Middle East, has twice visited Moscow within the last four months.
At a recent economic conference in St. Petersburg, the Saudis invited Putin to Riyadh and the Russians reciprocated by inviting the new King Salman to visit Putin.
As Obama plans his presidential library, Putin is deciding how to best exploit the final 17 months of his Obama bonanza.
The world sees it. Obama doesn’t.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post.