Obama’s Foreign Policy in the Post – Soviet Space: Failure or Success?

Has Obama succeeded in securing the USA’s primary political goals in the post – Soviet space?

Outgoing US President Barack Obama came to office amidst growing geopolitical confrontation with Russia. Moscow had just occupied two breakaway territories of Georgia, recognized their independence and vowed to take similar measures if its national security were to be jeopardized elsewhere in the post-Soviet space.

President Medvedev had


Russia’s ‘backyard’ its sphere of privileged interests.

At the outset of Obama’s presidency, Washington attempted a “reset” with Moscow in an attempt at reconciliation.

However, a gradual deterioration of relations in the wake of the Arab Spring and finally a deadlock following unrest and war in Ukraine quickly showed this ‘reset’ was not meant to be.

Despite praise for Obama’s

internal policies

, he is commonly criticized for being rather unsuccessful in the foreign sphere. Many political commentators portray his policies with regard to the Middle East and Ukraine as a failure.

However, a thorough look at American and Russian foreign policy interests and, against this background, geopolitical developments in Eurasia over the last eight years, gives solid ground to argue that President Obama has reached some of the most important foreign policy objectives of the USA in regards to the post – Soviet world.

The USA’s Geopolitical Interests in the Post-Soviet Space

Obama’s policies in Eurasia over the last 8 years have been guided by two vital interests.

First, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the USA has sought to prevent the resurgence of Russian hegemony. Prominent US strategists and politicians have on numerous  occasions made it clear that Russia’s comeback as a geopolitical rival would threaten US interests across the wider region, as it has begun to do, for example, in Syria.

Pro – Russian supporters in Syria
Pro – Russian supporters in Syria

One of the most popular and extensively cited works on geopolitics, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard (1997), provides important insight into this matter. In his book, Brzezinski writes that Eurasia is “the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played,” and that “it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America.”

He mentions in particular the importance of the geographic locations of Ukraine and Azerbaijan, and stresses that the United States should by no means allow Russia to re-draw these countries back into its orbit.

Hence, Putin’s announcement of plans to build a Eurasian Union in 2011 and the resources he began to invest to materialize these plans were alarming for US leaders. In 2012, Hillary Clinton, then as the U.S. Secretary of State,


the Kremlin’s efforts to promote greater integration in the post – Soviet space as “a move to re-Sovietize the region”, and made it clear that “We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The second vital interest of the United States, which is often less discussed, concerns relations between Russia and Europe.

George Friedman, one of the most prominent American political analysts,

has often

pointed out the importance of preventing the emergence of a coalition between Germany and Russia: the possibility of the combination of German capital and technology and Russian natural resources and manpower is a primordial fear of the USA.

Friedman points out that the existence of a US – dominated cordon sanitaire around Russia – the Baltic and Eastern European states – serves the US’ interest of preserving its influence in the region. From this perspective, Ukraine, which Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, once declared as

“the biggest prize”

in these geopolitical rivalries, is a key aspect of US’ foreign policy.

Eurasia in Obama’s Foreign Policy

During his presidency, Barack Obama made tremendous strides in both of the above – mentioned US geopolitical priorities.

Firstly, his administration has been remarkably successful in their efforts to slow down, if not to stop, the Kremlin’s plans to build a USSR – like bloc over the former Soviet region. Here, I refer particularly to the parting of Ukraine from Russia’s orbit in the wake of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s fall in early 2014.

Shortly after Yanukovych refrained from signing Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union in November 2013, the Obama Administration intervened in the process. The signing of the AA was important for the USA, because this agreement would single out the possibility of Ukraine’s entry into the Russia – promoted Eurasian Customs Union.

Obama’s foreign policy team actively supported the anti-Yanukovych upheaval, which has gone down in history as the Euromaidan revolution. Protesters toppled down Yanukovych and brought to power a Western-leaning government.

Russia’s aggressive reaction to this and the annexation of Crimea harshly devastated its image in the eyes of the Ukrainian public. While just

4% of the Ukrainians rated Russia unfavourably

prior to Crimea’s annexation, this indicator shot up to

around 60%

afterwards. This has minimized the possibility of the entry of Ukraine into a bloc with Russia for the foreseeable future.

The United States has granted a massive amount of financial, political, and military support to the post-Yanukovych, Ukrainian government to make sure that the country can withstand the pressure of the Kremlin. As a matter of fact, amidst the wearying confrontation with Russia,

Ukraine had only one true ally

– the United States of America.

The remarkable performance of the Obama Administration in the Ukraine crisis also helped Washington make progress towards the second objective mentioned above.

The severing confrontation with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis created legitimate ground for the United States to reinforce its military presence along the borders of Russia. The USA realized

“the most significant reinforcement of NATO’s collective defence since the end of the Cold War.”

In 2014, the Wales Summit of the Alliance


plans for “continuous air, land, and maritime presence and military activity in the eastern part of the Alliance (…) on a rotational basis”, deployment of further forces including fighter jets and multinational maritime forces, and the reinforcement of the NATO Response Force (NRF).

The military personnel of the alliance along the borders have been increased. Additionally, the Pentagon


that it plans to deploy fully manned combat brigades to Europe in response to “an aggressive Russia”, in addition to the presence of more than 60 thousand US troops in Europe. The USA also began negotiations on the membership of hitherto officially neutral countries, Finland and Sweden, into the NATO.

Meanwhile, relations between European Union and Russia have reached their lowest level in the post-Soviet period after the honeymoon years during the reigns of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The EU has lessened cooperation with Russia in a series of areas and imposed a wide range of sanctions on Russian politicians and on imports from Russia. In accordance with the principle of reciprocity, Russia also took similar measures against the European Union.


Editor: This article represents the opinion of the author and as such may not reflect that of Meydan TV.

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