In the last Democratic presidential debate, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked the following question: “…You famously handed Russia’s foreign minister a reset button in 2009. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine, provided weapons that downed an airliner and launched operations…to support Assad in Syria. As president, would you hand Vladimir Putin a reset button?”
Clinton responded as such: “Well, it would depend on what I got for it and I can tell you what we got in the first term, we got a new START treaty to reduce nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. We got permission to resupply our troops in Afghanistan by traveling across Russia. We got Russia to sign on to our sanctions against Iran and other very important commitments. So look, in diplomacy, you are always trying to see how you can figure out the interest of the other to see if there isn’t some way you can advance your security and your values.”
Like in previous debates, Secretary Clinton was eager to bring up the accomplishments in US-Russian relations between 2009 and 2011. Relations between the United States and Russia, while not at their best, were at the very least, stable between 2009 and 2011. Russia and the United States did sign a new nuclear treaty, implement sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and cooperate in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately a lot can change in five years. And very little changed for the better of US-Russian relations between 2011 and 2016.
“When Putin came back in the fall of 2011, it was very clear he came back with a mission. And I began speaking out as soon as that happened because there were some fraudulent elections held, and Russians poured out into the streets to demand their freedom, and he cracked down. And in fact, accused me of fomenting it. So we now know that he has a mixed record to say the least and we have to figure out how to deal with him.”
This is not entirely true. President Putin didn’t “come back” in the fall of 2011. He never left.
Vladimir Putin was Prime Minister between 2008 and 2012, a position he was appointed to when Dmitry Medvedev, his hand-picked successor, won the presidency in the 2008 election. Putin was then re-elected president in April of 2012.
Fraudulent elections also did take place. Elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament in December 2011 were marred by inconsistencies. Russians across the country, from Moscow to Novosibirsk to Vladivostok, protested the election results, calling the United Russia party the “Party of Swindlers and Thieves”.
The protests eventually fizzled out because of a lack of leadership and concrete plans to challenge Putin’s hold on power as well as a clampdown by the Kremlin.
Since the 2012 Presidential Election, US-Russian relations have steadily deteriorated. The curious case of Edward Snowden, Russia’s anti-gay laws, conflicting interests in Syria, and the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, specifically the annexation of Crimea, the not-quite-frozen war in the Donbas, and the MH17 disaster have pitted the United States and Russian Federation against each other once more.
Clinton was then asked what her relationship with President Putin was. “Well, my relationship with him, it’s — it’s interesting.” The response was met with laughter from the debate’s audience.
“It’s one, I think, of respect. We’ve had some very tough dealings with one another. And I know that he’s someone that you have to continuously stand up to because, like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can unless you do. And we need to get the Europeans to be more willing to stand up, I was pleased they put sanctions on after Crimea and eastern Ukraine and the downing of the airliner, but we’ve got to be more united in preventing Putin from taking a more aggressive stance in Europe and the Middle East.”
Clinton’s claim that the relationship she has with Putin is one of respect does not inspire confidence, especially when Putin is on the record as praising her potential opponent in the general election, Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who vowed to “get along” and “be friends” with President Putin.
At his annual press conference with Russian and international media representatives, the Russian president also made an unexpectedly vulgar suggestion about the United States and their NATO ally Turkey. When asked about the SU-24 plane shot down over Turkish airspace, Putin angrily wondered aloud whether “someone in the Turkish government decided to lick the Americans in a certain place”.
Respect should probably be the last word to use when a rival head of state is making open accusations of sexual favors between you and one of your allies.
It’s hard to argue that Secretary Clinton doesn’t have a deep understanding of foreign policy issues relating to the United States and Russia. She has worked in multiple different levels of government, including diplomacy, and has multiple accomplishments on other fronts. But her multiple controversies at home and abroad coupled with the substantial deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia is hardly inspiring.
In addition, Clinton openly considered another “reset” with the Kremlin, though she did not go into specifics regarding what would be on the bargaining table.
It’s hard to imagine President Putin surrendering Crimea and the Donbas even with economic troubles mounting in Russia and the Kremlin’s support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria is still solid and consistent. A U-turn in Ukraine and in Syria could throw Putin’s firm grasp on power, mainly due to nationalist sentiment, into serious doubt. If those are not actively considered, then what would be?
Donald Trump may sound silly and perhaps even appeasing to an authoritarian government when he claims he’ll be friends with Putin. But while Clinton possesses a greater understanding of the issues at hand, she’ll be fighting an uphill battle to say the least.