Is Russia a “Regional Power” or “Geopolitical Threat”? Obama argues with Romney from the Hague

(By Juan Cole)

The peculiar American two-party system followed President Obama to the Hague on Tuesday, where he gave a joint press conference with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, leader of a Neoliberal, market-oriented party with a secular orientation.

Obama was asked about the Ukraine, and replied from across the Atlantic to Mitt Romney’s “Face the Nation” critique, in which Romney posed as prescient about the dangers of Russia as America’s chief geopolitical adversary and slammed Obama as naive about Moscow.

Obama said,

“With respect to Mr. Romney’s assertion that Russia is our number-one geopolitical foe, the truth of the matter is that America has got a whole lot of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong, cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

So Obama denied the premises of Romney’s perspective. Russia, he said, is a narrow Eastern European issue, not a globe-straddling one.

In this regard Obama is certainly correct. Romney and other hawks appear to want to resurrect the Cold War. But that was a truly global struggle in which two ideologies, capitalism and socialism, competed for every country in the entire world. The US cared about politics in places like Senegal and Laos during the Cold War because it was competing with Soviet socialism as a way of organizing society in those places. The Soviet Union even had civil society allies like the Communist Party in Western countries such as France.

That kind of geopolitical competition no longer exists. Russia is just another capitalist country, but its reach into global markets is limited because it mainly has hydrocarbons to offer them, not so many factory-made goods. In some ways, Russia is a bit like Saudi Arabia, an oil and gas rentier state. The US is not competing for Senegal with Vladimir Putin. Nor for Laos. There is no organized support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in France. As Obama says, the flashpoints in US-Russian relations are small and regional, as with Ukraine (one could also mention a certain rivalry in Uzbekistan in Central Asia).

Obama was thinking of the summit on nuclear disarmament he was attending before the G7 meeting when he continued:

“And so my response to them continues to be what I believe today, which is Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number-one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan, which is part of the reason why the United States, showing its continued international leadership, has organized a forum over the last several years that’s been able to help eliminate that threat in a consistent way.”

So these remarks were not really aimed at Russia, Ukraine or the Netherlands. They were replies to the Republican Party, the role of which when it is in opposition is to gossip against and tear down the president from the other party. Obama was rejecting charges that he is weak and that Russia is challenging the US on a global level. He was saying that Russia is the one that is weak, since if it was strong it wouldn’t have needed to stage a hasty referendumn in and invasion of Crimea.

Obama seemed to recognize that Russia would not give back up Crimea, but emphasized that sanctions would be applied to punish Moscow for the annexation– even if they hurt Western economies somewhat as well.

But, he said, his goal was to dissuade Russia from taking districts from Eastern Ukraine or from sending its troops into its neighbor.

Obama, pressed by a reporter as to whether the US does not look weak in the current geopolitical moment, replied that all along the US had more than one sort of sanction available, and had declined to intervene in lots of crises in the 20th century.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Obama brands Russia ‘a regional power’”

22 Responses

  1. Obama has no business calling out the weaknesses of other states or individuals to defend himself from Republicans or anyone else. He has failed the major tests and opportunities he has been given. As a winner of the Nobel Peace prize, he has assassinated civilians and Americans with drones in contravention of international law. As a brilliant Ivy-league educated professor of constitutional law he has violated not only the 4th amendment but his Oath of Office in his support of the NSA and his prosecution of whistleblowers. His response to the ’08 meltdown has largely been to support plutocratic priorities and blame it on the massive intransigence of Republicans. But most importantly, he has failed to rally the nation against the greatest threat mankind has ever faced: global warming. Bush was weak largely due to incompetence; Obama is weak because he has compromised his principles every step of the way.

    • Mr. Dillard,

      That Russia today is only a regional power and relatively weak is a fact that requires pointing out as the American public are not well informed on that geostrategic reality and the usual right-wing suspects are again beating the drums. The American people need not blow the Crimean matter out of proportion. The truth tends to deflate propaganda and misinformation. Shouldn’t it be our default setting if at all possible?

      Mr. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize was premature. He is not to blame for that. And certainly it does not limit his freedom of action as President of the United States. I suggest that he be judged on the same criteria after the end of his term when the historians have done their work.
      .
      As to any given use of a drone, I suggest that you demonstrate your claim that International Law was violated. The War in Afghanistan continues. We are leaving the country and the drone strikes are essentially rear guard actions keeping the enemy leadership off balance so that we may complete the departure in relative serenity. Would you deny our men that degree of protection?

      The war was begun by George W. Bush. Our invasion of Afghanistan was perfectly legitimate as ‘hot pursuit’. Where Bush blundered was in taking the the advice of neoconservatives in his government and turning hot pursuit of bin Laden into a nation-building neighborhood-improvement crusade on the order of that in Iraq. As to Americans killed by drones, I suspect that the rationale was that whomever they were they they had become enemy combatants and were continuing to engage in combat against us.

      Do you deny the massive intransigence of the Republicans? Beyond massive it has been absolutely unprecedented and is clearly racist.

      Obama was supportive of NSA in the early Snowden aftermath. That’s not too surprising, but he is now making new changes which is an implicit admission that they are needed.

      As to climate change you exonerate Bush because of his stupidity. Obama has been calling for new climate measures from the beginning. His only window of opportunity was during the first half of his first term. Do you fault him for choosing health care? He would never have gotten both through Congress at the same time.

      Politicians succeed when they are politic. They must recognize reality. You hold him to standards no President could meet.

      • Mr. Hunter,

        Give me a break. Each of your claims is lacking any basis as well. Produce your proof. This is no place for it, but I would really like to see you justify “hot pursuit”, “rear guard”, “supportive”, the choice or healthcare vs climate, or political success. You seem to lack vision and submit implicitly that politicians succeed where they have corporate backers.

        Obama gave up his principles if they ever were in fact his principles.

  2. The only weakness Obama is showing is vis-a-vis the Deep State neocons. Can the man take charge of his own State Department?

  3. So the country that was first to put satellite in space, first animal in space, first cosmonaut in space, and large exporter of high tech arms, excellent airplane designs and home of superb mathematicians, thinkers and writers is like Saudi Arabia?

    • That’s exactly what he’s saying and it’s entirely correct. Russia without hydrocarbon resources to sell would be lumped in with the Less Economically Developed countries at this point. Even worse, it’s in a steep demographic decline, so it does not have the option of focusing inwards on developing it’s own consumer economy. If any significant portion of the world moves away from hydrocarbons and towards renewable or nuclear energy generation (particularly Europe), Russia is toast economically and politically as the oil and gas money is all that’s keeping the oligarchs aligned with the nationalists.

      The tragic irony is that all of things that you would need to do to help alleviate these weaknesses (stuff like fixing income/political inequality, encouraging foreign immigration, and state reinvestment in a crumbling infrastructure) are all anathema to the current Russian government, which is basically an alliance between the oligarchs, religious fundamentalists and nationalists. I’m not arguing that this was always the case, (though even at the hight of it’s power the USSR seems to have been punching well above it’s actual weight in terms of science and technology), but however mighty the Russian state might have been in the past, it has since been hollowed out by the kleptocrats.

      • ” Russia without hydrocarbon resources to sell would be lumped in with the Less Economically Developed countries at this point.”

        If 21st Century Russia has inherited the qualities that helped 20th Century Russia win the Battle of Stalingrad and reverse the direction of WWII to reach Berlin and conquer the once-mightiest army in Europe, it probably shouldn’t be written off yet.

      • “Russia without hydrocarbon resources to sell would be lumped in with the Less Economically Developed countries at this point.”

        There is a difficulty with this lumping: hydrogen bombs.

  4. Good specific comments above. And as a general observation, I would volunteer that it is better to be “weak” but wise rather than “strong” but stupid. “Strong” America tore apart Iraq based on lies and deceit. Very, very stupid, as well as immoral. I see no virtue or strength in folly.

  5. First, let’s dispose of the assertions made by Romney. Obama’s ‘red line’ fiasco in Syria did not embolden Putin to move in Ukraine. The two had nothing to do with each other and without arguing the merits of having one’s bluff called, Putin would have invaded Ukraine whether Obama had enforced his red line or not. Furthermore, Putin has given the US the excuse – if it is taken – to coordinate its efforts better in Syria to assure the removal of the Assad regime which would end up with Russia as PNG, the loss of its pathetic docking rights and vaporization of a good deal of arms sales. That is entirely different issue from Ukraine, however. Romney doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    Second, you’ve got it wrong about Obama’s characterization as a regional power. This was a direct slap in the fact to Putin who is intent on restoring Russia as a world power, including the absorption of or submission by its “near abroad” independent states. The fact is, Russia is nothing but a regional power with nothing to sell except oil and gas. Also, your assertion that Russia is just another capitalist country is flippant and wrong. It is a mafia run state with delusions of grandeur. It can no more be compared to any European country as it could be considered a democratic nation.

    Russia is not the number one threat – but its invasion of its neighbor Ukraine in retaliation for the overthrow of its puppet and corrupt president Yanukovich is a direct challenge to the European idea and the safety of people who have no intention of succumbing to the Hitleresque tactics of Putin and his clan.

    What is happening, however, is that the illegal war in Iraq has poisoned the well. A people who genuinely want to be part of Europe – who have died to try and join Europe – will be abandoned because of Iraq and the unwillingness of the only country capable of helping them to do what is necessary to prevent the escalation of Russian territorial ambitions. Make no mistake, Russia has not deployed some of its elite armoured and motorized infantry divisions on the border of Ukraine to conduct maneuvers. They have not deployed special forces into Transdneister to protect it from a Moldovan invasion. Quite the reverse. The seizure of Crimea is only the first step and the West’s anemic response will result in more people living under the new Nazi’s in Moscow. No freedom of speech. No dissent. No arguments. And with the right to protect Russian speakers no matter where they are and adjust borders accordingly. Just ask Georgia.

    Obama will do nothing and the EU is powerless. There are steps that could be taken that would bring even the Kremlin up short. But the new Chamberlains will not permit it.

    • “there are steps,” are there? And what are those steps? That “will bring even the Kremlin up short”? Do we hear the rattling of some good ol’ Cold Warrior sabers? Which of course are notoriously a Cossack weapon? I am sure there’s a constituency in under the Beltway Imperial Bubble that would be glad to have any advice on “steppe steps” to take… including the ol’ growl’n’mutter, and the clatter of Neoconium-plated heel and toe taps and the ever-ready hobnails…

  6. “And we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong, cooperative relationship with them.”

    Not as long as we can support locals to overthrow governments not to our liking; e.g., Chile, most of Central American and now Venezuela.

    With Putin having the impertinence of placing Russia’s perceived interests over those of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex’s agency in Europe (NATO) then we might have to send the National Endowment for Democracy into Russia to bring “democracy” to the Russians.

  7. The Israel-Palestine “peace talks” are not helping Obama with the threat of their likely failure bringing US credibility into question:

    “Yossi Mekelberg, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said Kerry’s unscheduled meeting with Abbas underlined the further danger to US credibility of a peace process unravelling, and the inability of both sides to reach a compromise. “I think the US embarked on something very difficult that is gradually becoming impossible. US credibility is on the line – and not just in the Middle East. The prognosis is not good and both sides are making demands they know are impossible for the other side. That is compounded by two weak leaders of two weak political systems that cannot make decisions.”” link to theguardian.com

    • Meeting with Israel’s enemy in private does not bring the credibility of the U.S. into question. It reinforces it as a clear sign of autonomy. It means we’re at the point where such such demands on us clearly no longer matter. In fact it is quite the opposite. Demands that we have no contact with the “terrorist” enemies of Israel have been a routine part of the oppression imposed upon us for decades by both the Lobby and its client. What the change means is that our statesmen are no longer inhibited by it. This is a subtle but very important change which sends messages not only to the Israelis but to the Europeans who are ready to assist us on a large scale.

      Yossi Mekelberg says that ignoring the demands of the Israelis undermines U.S. credibility and that of the peace process itself, which we all know never existed if it depended on Netanyahu. We know the man. It is useless to deny it to each other.

      Surely the Administration knows that Netanyahu will destroy the negotiations if he can get away with it just as he did the Oslo process. That’s not really the question. It’s the existence and nature of the President’s Plan B which matters. Personally I believe that when the negotiations have already failed, the United States having made a comprehensive good-faith diplomatic effort, that the Administration will have to begin making offers and statements of fact and demands which Israel can not long resist—-and seeing to it that the situation becomes common fare on the Israeli Street.

      • “Meeting with Israel’s enemy in private does not bring the credibility of the U.S. into question. ”

        But the very likely collapse of the “peace talks” will certainly not enhance Obama’s, Kerry’s or the US’s image.

  8. For a little more context, regarding “in front of the curtain” vs. “behind the curtain,” one might look at this little article and its links:

    “German Industry Goes To See Uncle Putin,” link to nakedcapitalism.com

    Hey, man, it’s a BIG MARKET, with lots of corruption/profit opportunities! Can’t blow that off over some petty boundary thingie!

    Here’s your “realpolitik,” too:

    link to upi.com

    link to sipri.org

  9. While I appreciate your optimism, political realities do not allow the US to bring appreciable pressure to bear on Israel. Taking Israel to the International Courts, as Abbas threatens, will mean that more laws will exist for Israel to ignore with the support of the US, just as both do the current, long-established international laws. The solution? BDS. When Israeli companies lose money and Israeli professionals lose status, they will put pressure on their own government.

  10. Russia is aso a neighbor on an over crowded globe. A wise president would say that out loud. Rants of foes here, there, and everywhere helps create foes. Given our probable future, we don’t need foes, we need friends.

  11. “While I appreciate your optimism, political realities do not allow the US to bring appreciable pressure to bear on Israel.”

    Joseph,

    Lincoln wasn’t a fatalist. He promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation and suspended Habeas Corpus during the Civil War. FDR exercised broad executive authority, especially in the manufacturing economy during WWII. It can not be denied that the situation in the Middle East is emergent and has been with varying degrees of intensity since 1967 when Israel occupied the final 22% of Palestine and expelled enough additional Palestinians to make the total a million since 1948. Subsequent to 1967 Israel has neither defined her proposed goals nor borders nor released us from our Lobby-enforced unwritten obligations to her. That’s inexcusable.

    There are vital American interests in the region and some are global in scope. As the U.S. is a global superpower and Israel is a tiny regional power, our interests and responsibilities are profoundly divergent. The presumption that we must follow Israel’s interests there at the expense of our own is an insult and a humiliation and is also in derogation of our our duties as a world leader.

    The present negotiations with Iran regarding nuclear weapons presents a clear example of those global American duties. Mr. Netanyahu’s almost daily struggle to stymie and frustrate the negotiations demonstrates that Israel’s perceived interests lie in the pursuit of regional hegemony through repeated violent assaults on Muslim States in the region, and thus that they are profoundly contrary to ours. We’ve been there and done that. And everyone here knows how it unfolded.

    The same is true of Israel’s attitude toward her occupation and annexation of various additional Arab/Palestinian territories. Israel is determined to keep the West Bank irrespective of the fact that our single most important interest in the region lies in founding a Palestinian State there. The divergence is profound and fraught with very unpleasant consequences for the United States if we fail.

    This matter is a head to head conflict. Unless we take control of the situation by defeating the Israel Lobby and reversing the nature of our relationship with the so-called Jewish State we will be in thrall there indefinitely. That’s a miserable fate as history has already shown and it must be avoided.

    Yes to BDS. Overt endorsement of it on Sunday talk shows by Administrative officials. Greenlight the Europeans. But don’t you think we should begin drafting a proposed Presidential Declaration of a Foreign Policy Emergency complete with various measures and sanctions designed to change the nature of the relationship? Did the new sanctions on Russia require a new Act of Congress?

  12. Mr Watson, Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments. “Unless we take control of the situation by defeating the Israel Lobby and reversing the nature of our relationship with the so-called Jewish State we will be in thrall there indefinitely. ” Unfortunately, Kerry’s “proposal” seems to be a total sell out to AIPAC and Netanyahu; no wonder Abbas and friends aren’t buying it. If that is the best Obama has to offer (apparently it is), then I see no reason to assume help will come from the US government. “But don’t you think we should begin drafting a proposed Presidential Declaration of a Foreign Policy Emergency complete with various measures and sanctions designed to change the nature of the relationship?” Of course. Do I think it is likely? Not in the slightest. Change is most likely to come not only from BDS but from Jews like this one, that wake up and have tremendous courage: link to muzzlewatch.com

  13. hey, all here need not be so snooty about poor Russia. a “regional power” can’t harvest more medals than any other country in the winter Olympics. Russia still have the people who sent the first manned craft into space and the forest that makes it the richest country in the truest sense. know that little lake in Russian far east? has 1/5 of the world’s fresh water, and the cleanest, more than the 5 great lakes combined. what are the real resources/riches? think twice, folks! people plus natural resources, Russia is the only country that can match the US.

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