The American Interest

Published on: August 4, 2017


How Obama’s Weakness Encouraged Russian Election Meddling
amir Marusic

From the mysterious death of Mikhail Lesin in Washington DC to the assault on an American in front of our embassy in Moscow, President Obama was very careful in calibrating his responses to Russian provocations throughout 2016. Too careful.


Amid the unrelenting media din accompanying the latest twist in the White House’s ongoing personnel struggles last week, BuzzFeed News managed to cause a minor stir by publishing an update on the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of Mikhail Lesin, the former Putin advisor instrumental in cowing Russia’s lively media in the early 2000s. Lesin, who died in a Washington DC hotel room on November 5, 2015 of “blunt force injuries of the head,” was said to have fatally injured himself by falling after being “excessively” drunk for several days. The death was officially ruled an accident in October 2016. The BuzzFeed article updated the narrative: two FBI agents with some knowledge of the case seemed to suggest that Lesin had in fact been beaten, perhaps with a baseball bat; that he was in Washington to talk to the Feds, and was put up at his hotel by the Department of Justice; and, implicitly, that there had been some kind of cover-up by the Obama Administration.

I was at a small conference in Lithuania almost two years ago, alongside several other Russia-watchers, when the news of Lesin’s death first broke. As our phones lit up with notifications, the consensus was unanimous: “He’s been whacked!” Russia experts have a kind of gallows humor reflex about unexpected deaths of those surrounding Vladimir Putin. Lesin had stepped down as the head of Gazprom Media a little less than a year before amid rumors of having fallen out with someone well-placed in the Kremlin, so his death immediately conjured up conspiracies in our minds.

The fact that the Russian Embassy was furiously spinning the story hours after it had broken, saying Lesin had died of a heart attack when there was no way they could have known, just added fuel to the fire. And when it took more than four months for the D.C. coroner to announce that Lesin had died from a blow to the head, and another seven months for investigators to conclude that he had received it from an unlucky drunken fall, those suspicions hardened into a theory: The Obama Administration didn’t want this spiraling out into a large scandal because, among other things, it sought Russian cooperation on Syria and Ukraine.

Does BuzzFeed’s article confirm the theory? Not necessarily. We on the outside can’t know everything the Obama Administration was seeing at the time as it was calibrating its policy towards Russia, and we won’t know definitively for many more years to come. But given what we know of President Obama’s foreign policy thinking during his second term, largely due to the work of Jeffrey Goldberg and David Samuels, we can say that as a tendency, the President saw Putin’s Russia as a problem child to be corralled, not as an aggressive actor to be confronted. And in practice, that personal tendency of the President manifested itself as an over-reluctance to react on the part of his Administration—a kind of timidity.

This timidity was on display all throughout 2016, well before the President was confronted with a detailed report from the CIA containing evidence of Russian interference in our elections. In July of that year, just a little after Trump, Jr. held his meeting with the so-called Russian lobbyists in New York, an explosive video started making the rounds—footage of a Russian security guard wrestling an alleged U.S. spy to the ground right outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow, in the process fracturing the American’s shoulder.

It was an act of unprecedented aggression on the part of the Russians, with at least one former U.S. intelligence official noting how such brazen behavior was unheard of even at the height of the Cold War. And it was but the most egregious manifestation of what appears to have been a concerted effort to intimidate U.S. diplomats in Russia.

One American family had found its dog killed upon coming home; another diplomat discovered human feces smeared on his rug; and around the time the video, already months old, was leaked to the press, a military helicopter had repeatedly buzzed a car carrying a U.S. defense attaché in the north of Russia. To these provocations, the Obama Administration repeatedly turned the other cheek, presumably out of a desire to not scotch what they hoped were promising signs of a breakthrough in Ukraine or Syria.

Of course, not only did the promising breakthrough not materialize, but a month later, CIA Director John Brennan was knocking down President Obama’s door with a grim intel assessment: President Putin had personally authorized his agencies to commence meddling in the U.S. elections. It was armed with this knowledge that Obama said he confronted Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Huangzhou, China, telling him to “cut it out, or there would be serious consequences.” Putin must have had himself a hearty laugh.

(Can you image Obama telling Putin to “cut it out.”  That is hilarious – heap big smoke – no fire.  I bet Putin was shaking in his boots.)

In explaining how he approached Putin, Obama defended his understated manner at a press conference in December. “There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians,” Obama said. “I think it doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.”

Given the fuller picture we now can piece together, it’s clear that it is Obama who didn’t read the Russian thought process very well. If Russian agents had bludgeoned Lesin into a pulp on U.S. soil under the nose of the Feds and had beaten a U.S. spy on the threshold of the U.S. embassy in Moscow without any perceptible blowback, what possible danger was there for Putin to roundly ignore Obama’s feeble threats?

And indeed, as the Washington Post reported, while Obama did in the end quietly authorize U.S. intelligence agencies to start developing and deploying a powerful cyber-weapon into critical Russian infrastructure, the most visible element of his response to Russian election meddling was taking two compounds used for intelligence gathering and expelling 35 suspected Russian spies—a symbolic gesture. Adding to the irony, the confiscations and expulsions were originally mooted as a response to the roughing up of the American agent in Moscow. Had Obama acted forthrightly then, Putin would have taken him more seriously when he leveled his threats in September.

Many Democrats seem to have conveniently forgotten just how halting, indecisive, and weak President Obama’s approach to Putin’s Russia had been in practice. When the BuzzFeed story first broke, some of the more prominent conspiracy theorists even tried to tie it to the Trump-Russia investigations:

Seth Abramson
✔ ‎@SethAbramson

BREAKING: Vladimir Putin has likely killed another Russian related to the Trump-Russia probe. That makes it… {counting}… a *lot*. https://twitter.com/SchoofsFeed/status/890965095349702656




About kommonsentsjane

Enjoys sports and all kinds of music, especially dance music. Playing the keyboard and piano are favorites. Family and friends are very important.
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