DOMINIC LAWSON: Barack Obama is lauded for his statesmanship. But it was on his watch that the murderous gangster Putin TRULY grew emboldened
The Dutch-led joint investigation into the downing over Ukraine of flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has saved the most important point to the very end.
The investigators concluded: ‘There are strong indications that the Russian President decided on supplying the [missile system] Buk Telar’ — which, on July 17, 2014, annihilated 298 men, women and children on an airliner packed with mostly Dutch holidaymakers.
The investigation, which intercepted more than 3,500 conversations, had already established that the Buk had been conveyed, manned and fired by members of the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade of the Russian army, based in Kursk.
But it was only last week, when announcing its conclusions, that the investigators revealed telephone conversations about the request to Moscow from the Russian separatists on the ground in the east of Ukraine for this form of weaponry.
DOMINIC LAWSON: Joe Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2017, had implored his boss to send Javelin anti-tank missiles and other ‘lethal aid’ to Ukraine
They are told to wait a short while because ‘there is only one who makes a decision . . . the person who is currently at a summit in France’. This was, of course, President Vladimir Putin, then at the D-Day commemoration.
On his return, Putin gave the go-ahead, and the fate of those hundreds of sun-seeking tourists was sealed. It’s not surprising that the first Western European nation to declare itself open to supplying modern fighter jets to the Ukrainians fighting for their lives against the Russian army was the Netherlands.
It is the U.S. which has been by far the biggest contributor of advanced weaponry to Kyiv. But the question lingers: what would have happened if the Americans had, much earlier, recognised the threat which Putin posed to peace in Europe?
In fact, Joe Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2017, had implored his boss to send Javelin anti-tank missiles and other ‘lethal aid’ to Ukraine. As Peter Conradi, the author of Who Lost Russia? From The Collapse Of the USSR To Putin’s War On Ukraine, points out: ‘Biden wrote in his memoir in 2017 of having tried in vain to persuade his boss to change his mind.’
Obama had long been dismissive of the idea of Putin as a significant threat. Indeed, in the final TV debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, he ridiculed his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for saying earlier that year: ‘Russia, this is without question our number one geopolitical foe.’ Obama mocked Romney: ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.’
Ten years later, Romney was able to retort, after Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine: ‘Putin’s impunity predictably follows our tepid response to his previous horrors in Georgia and Crimea, [and] our naive efforts at a one-sided reset [in relations with Russia].’
He added, referring directly back to Obama’s put-down of him in 2012: ‘The 1980s called and we didn’t answer.’
In fact, Putin had been encouraged into thinking the Americans were paper tigers by Obama’s behaviour in 2013. The U.S. President had declared that any use of chemical weapons by Russia’s Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, would constitute a ‘red line’, justifying U.S. military intervention — but when Assad did exactly that, Obama vacillated, saying it would be for Congress to decide.
Those involved gave their accounts in Norma Percy’s superb three-part documentary series (the last episode goes out tonight), Putin Vs The West. The then U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, tells the programme that when he and his team listened to Obama climb down in a White House Rose Garden address: ‘We were open-jawed and dumbfounded.’
Putin flooded his own forces into that vacuum, and when, the following year, he sent Russian troops into Crimea and the east of Ukraine, Obama still refused to send any ‘lethal aid’ to the beleaguered government in Kyiv.
Obama had long been dismissive of the idea of Putin, pictured on February 10, as a significant threat
Donald Trump, in fact, for all that he wanted to be matey with Putin, was responsible for changing that policy, agreeing in 2017 to the plea of the then Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, to supply Kyiv with anti-tank weapons.
But what did Obama say in the wake of Moscow’s attempt to seize the whole of Ukraine a year ago? In an interview two months after Russia’s tanks were sent (unsuccessfully) to capture Kyiv, he ruminated of his dealings with Putin: ‘I don’t know that the person I knew is the same as the person leading this charge.’
This idea that the Putin who has been bombarding Ukrainian cities is ‘different’ from the person Obama and other Western leaders had encountered in earlier years is convenient self-justification.
Putin has always used extreme violence and murder to achieve his political objectives. (I’m no great expert, but was able to write in 2006 that he was a gangster more than a politician.)
And, when Putin attended a closed session of a NATO conference in 2008 — yes, really — he told startled delegates that ‘Ukraine is not a country, [it is] a mistake in history.’ It was obvious to a number of those attending (specifically, those from the former Soviet satellite states) that Putin’s ultimate aim was to rectify that ‘mistake’.
One can see why Obama took the line that he did. The main reason he won the Democrat nomination, rather than Hillary Clinton, in 2008, was that he, unlike her, had not backed the invasion of Iraq — and had been proved right.
And in 2009, very soon after becoming President, he was, for no obvious reason, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps he then felt he had to live up to it.
I met Obama once, being introduced to him on his state visit to the UK in 2011. As is customary, I said something flattering: to the effect that his memoir Dreams From My Father was so brilliantly crafted, it was a great shame that he had given up writing for a career in politics.
It was a joke, obviously. But now I think — for all the adulation Barack Obama’s presidency still evokes — that it may also have been the truth.
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