IN 2009, President Obama cancelled the deployment of US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic as an earnest of his intent to reset relations with Russia and allay its anger over Nato’s years of eastward expansion.
Shortly before his re-election in 2012, he assured the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have flexibility over the positioning of Nato missiles once he was secure in the White House. The remark, at a security conference in South Korea, was picked up accidentally by an open microphone.
Obama asked Medvedev to give his message to Vladimir Putin, who was about to become Russian President for a second time. The American President implied his agreement that Moscow’s security grievances were legitimate.
Reset didn’t work out as hoped. The Obama administration went on to help overthrow the pro-Russian government of Ukraine in 2014. Fearing that Ukraine might join Nato next, Putin seized Ukrainian Crimea in retaliation to secure the main base of his Black Sea navy.
Still the pragmatist, Obama accepted the fait accompli rather than risk a worsening of the East-West stand-off over Nato. Instead, a low-level war broke out in eastern Ukraine where the Russian-speaking majority sought autonomy.
Joe Biden took office inheriting from both Obama and Donald Trump a source of permanent discord that Moscow called an existential threat which it would not tolerate.
Although he has mainly followed his mentor’s policies, something changed in the attitude to Putin of Biden’s foreign policy team, most of whom had served under Obama and had shied from confrontation over Crimea. The thinking seemed to have become some version of: let’s neutralise the Russians by just ignoring them.
As a result of his inability to force the US into serious negotiations, Putin has waged war on Ukraine since February. The Obama doctrine of caution has been replaced by a gauntlet thrown down to Putin.
Now that the Swedes and Finns have tabled their Nato applications, only Turkey’s threatened veto can prevent them joining and once they do, a line will have been crossed that will not be negotiable with the Russians.
Admitting them to the alliance adds 800 miles of Finnish border with Russia for the potential deployment of Nato missiles and troops. It pushes Putin deeper into isolation from the West and seriously complicates the prospect of closing down the war in Ukraine soon.
How far does Nato expect Putin to swallow this enlargement on top of the one he is fighting in Ukraine to prevent? To what extent do we in the West trust in the ability of Biden to force him to do so without risking an incalculable wider conflict?