Did Obama’s Failures Strengthen Putin’s Hand?
In the spring of 2012, soon after Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency, President Barack Obama convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room to discuss the way forward. Obama had invested a lot in the “reset” with Russia, and he believed it had achieved some meaningful wins. But having first met the Russian leader during a tense 2009 meeting in Moscow, where he was subjected to one of Putin’s customary harangues about the West’s betrayals, Obama understood that U.S.-Russia relations were likely to get worse.
“The main challenge is to put him in a box to stop making mischief,” Obama said of Putin. Yet he wondered what leverage the United States had to influence the Russian leader, and he struggled with how to send this message in a way Putin would understand. “We have to look him in the eye,” Obama said — referring to President George W. Bush’s infamous statement in 2001 that he had looked into Putin’s eye and gotten a sense of his soul — “to tell him, ‘Don’t think you can screw around without consequence.’”