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How US Leaders Enabled Russian Aggression

Historical overview

Image: Neville Chamberlain waving his Munich agreement at the airport on his return to England, 1938

United States and European Union politicians have asserted that Russia’s war against Ukraine is not America's war. However, the record demonstrates that Russia’s war against Ukraine was greatly facilitated by American enablers, who turned a blind eye to Russian aggression while denying Ukraine the means and resources to defend itself.  The United States and its leaders, from Bush to Biden, bear considerable responsibility for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)

Michael Casey wrote in The Atlantic:

  • “Russia is the last European empire that has resisted even basic decolonization efforts…During and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Russian empire hit its modern nadir, the United States refused to safeguard the newly won independence of multiple post-Soviet states, citing misplaced concerns about humiliating Moscow. Emboldened by the West’s reluctance, Moscow began to reclaim the lands it lost.”[1]

Whereas US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney “wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world,” President George H.W. Bush pursued a policy of accommodation and appeasement towards Moscow.  Casey continued:

  • “He [Bush] and American policy makers after him—failed to see the end of the Soviet Union for what it was: not just a defeat for communism, but a defeat for colonialism. Rather than quash Russia’s imperial aspirations when they had the chance, Bush and his successors simply watched and hoped for the best. As Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft later said about the Soviet collapse, ‘In the end, we took no position at all. We simply let things happen.’”

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

George Bogden wrote in the Wall Street Journal that U.S. President Bill Clinton “sealed Ukraine’s fate.”[2]  Shortly following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Bogden documents that so-called disarmament “experts” and US government officials demanded that “Ukraine could not keep nuclear weapons,” while turning a blind eye to Russia’s long history of atrocities and aggression against its neighbors.  US President Bill Clinton immediately set about to strongly pressure Ukraine to surrender its entire nuclear arsenal - at that time the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world - to Russia. In return, the infamous Budapest Memorandum offered only empty assurances that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation would guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Russian diplomat Georgiy Mahmedov told the US State Department at the time: “Many on our side will resent your meddling in something that they believe is none of your business. Kyiv will resent your taking away the strongest card in their hand.”[3]

Bogden recounts that Ukrainian president Leonard Kravchuk expressed grave concerns to Clinton, but was ignored: “The fear…is political explosion and the dividing up of Ukraine—autonomy for Donetsk, and Krivoi Rog, and Galicia, and finally the dismemberment of the country.”  

After signing the agreement, Kravchuk remarked that “If tomorrow Russia goes into Crimea, no one will raise an eyebrow.”  Bogden explains that American diplomats falsely imputed themselves as understanding Ukraine’s best interest better than Ukrainians, while ignoring abundant evidence of Moscow’s duplicity.

George W. Bush (2001-2009)

The George W. Bush administration marked a further pivot away from confrontation with Russia and China.  The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and then Iraq under the false pretense of “weapons of mass destruction.” Bush’s false claims have been used by Russia as a pretense to justify its own aggression and lies, as well as weakening international law and providing a template for the unjustified invasion of a sovereign nation.[4]

Barack Obama (2009-2017)

Like Clinton, Obama shared the delusion that Russia was a responsible actor that played by the rules of international law, notwithstanding Russia’s role as the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and revolution for over a century.  He failed to respond to Russian war crimes and scorched-earth tactics against civilians in Syria. Obama assured and exacerbated the crisis in Syria by failing to respond to Russian use of chemical weapons and other atrocities despite proclaiming a “red line.”[5]  Hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were displaced.[6]

In February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea, the organization of puppet proxy “republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk following sham referenda, and the initiation of a protracted war in the Donbas from 2014 until the full-scale invasion in 2022.  Contrary to American guarantees under the Budapest Memorandum, Barack Obama defaulted on the United States’ obligation as a guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Obama refused to provide any lethal aid to Ukraine, leading then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to famously declare: “We can’t win the war with blankets.”[7]

Despite nearly a century of atrocities by communist states leading to the murder of more than an estimated 100 million people, making communism the “killingest idea in history,” Obama referred to the competition between communism and capitalism as an “interesting experiment.”

Obama’s weakness and betrayal conveyed that his hollow warnings to Russia were primarily intended to deflect domestic criticisms rather than from any actionable concern for human rights.  In 2012, Obama was caught on live microphone telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that after the election he would have “more flexibility” to make further concessions to Russia.[8]  Less than two years later, Russia would seize Crimea and invade the Donbas.

In 2017, James Kirchick at the left-leaning, Clinton-associated Brookings Institute documented “Why it’s Hard to Take Democrats Seriously on Russia,” chronicling the Obama Administration’s consistent pro-Russia stance.[9]  (Kirchick’s companion article “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin[10] is also recommended reading.) Obama’s serial concessions to the Russian mafia state enabled and facilitated Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine and the Donbas set the stage for full-scale invasion in 2022.  CNN’s Chris Cillizza acknowledged in 2022: “It's time to admit it: Mitt Romney was right about Russia.”[11]  Kirchick wrote, in part:

  • “In 2012...the Obama administration lobbied for repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era law tying enhanced trade relations with Russia to its human rights record…Bill Browder, the London-based investor for whom Magnitsky worked and the driving force behind the [Magnitsky human rights and anti-corruption] bill, told Foreign Policy, ‘The [Obama] administration, starting with Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry, did everything they could do to stop the Magnitsky Act’...

  • “From the reset, which it announced in early 2009 just months after Russia invaded Georgia, to its removal of missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland later that year, to its ignoring Russia’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (while simultaneously negotiating New START) and its ceding the ground in Syria to Russian military intervention, the Obama administration’s Russia policy was one, protracted, eight-year-long concession to Moscow

  • “Downplaying both the nature and degree of the Russian menace constituted a major component of mainstream liberal foreign policy doctrine until about [2016]... It provided justification for Obama’s humiliating acceptance in 2013 of Russia’s cynical offer to help remove Syrian chemical weapons after he failed to endorse his own ‘red line’ against their deployment. Not only did that deal fail to ensure the complete removal of Bashar Assad’s stockpiles (as evidenced by the regime’s repeated use of such weapons long after they were supposedly eliminated), it essentially opened the door to Russian military intervention two years later.”

Scorched-earth atrocities, systematic targeting of civilians and infrastructure, extensive war crimes perpetrated by Russia against Ukraine were substantially developed and refined in Russia’s war crimes in Syria during the Obama years.  Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, dubbed the "Butcher of Mariupol" for his atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, is among many Russian military leaders for whom unchecked atrocities in Syria became a blueprint for Ukraine.[12] Kirchik continued:

  • “Even after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, the first violent seizure of territory on the European continent since World War II, Obama continued to understate the severity of the Russian threat… Romney, whose prescience about Russia, had he been elected in 2012, may very well have dissuaded Putin from doing what he did on Obama’s watch. In Obama, Putin rightly saw a weak and indecisive leader…The newfangled Democratic hawkishness on Russia seems motivated almost entirely, if not solely, by anger over the (erroneous) belief that Putin cost Clinton the election—not over the Kremlin’s aggression toward its neighbors…or countless other malfeasances.”

With the discontinuation of the US space shuttle fleet with no domestic alternative - a move widely criticized as a national security vulnerability- the Obama administration paid Russia to take US astronauts to the International Space Station.[13] By 2019, some five years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, NASA’s payments to Russia totaled over $3.9 billion, notwithstanding the Trump administration’s increasing reliance on private partners.[14] By 2020, at the end of the Trump administration, the price tag had grown to $90 million per ride.[15]

Russia’s rocketry program has always served military aims, yet the perfidy of funding development of this technology for a foe with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal that has periodically engaged in nuclear blackmail against the US and its allies received scant attention in the US press. Russia’s hypersonic Kinzhal rocket and other missiles used kill Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure in 2022 have been dubbed by some as “Obama rockets,” with the US taxpayer contributing to the bill.

A year into the war with thousands of Ukrainians dead and large swaths of territory lost to Russia, the Obama administration was still "reviewing" lethal aid to Ukraine.[16] Obama ultimately failed to provide basic defensive arms to Ukraine, rejecting the recommendations of his own senior national security officials.[17]

Donald Trump (2017-2021)

In the face of intensifying Russian military aggression, Donald Trump approved lethal aid to Ukraine in 2017 over the loud objections of Russia and leftist critics.[18]  Trump was later accused of delaying aid to Ukraine during his first impeachment, although the aid was ultimately delivered and Ukrainian President Zelensky was reportedly unaware that aid had been delayed. In early 2022, Former President Trump’s bizarre praise of Vladimir Putin as “a genius” and “savvy” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a low in public statements by US leaders.[19]

Joe Biden (2021-present)

Biden positioned himself as a defender of Ukraine during his role as Obama’s vice president while his son Hunter Biden was paid millions by Ukrainian and Russian firms in an alleged influence peddling scandal.  Biden Sr. threatened to withhold over $1 billion in US loan guarantees from Ukraine unless the country fired its top prosecutor who was investigating his son Hunter for corruption, and then bragged about it.[20]

Biden’s duplicity and incompetence in Afghanistan arguably represents the proximate cause of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Within a month of Biden’s catastrophic withdrawal and abandonment of the Afghan people to the Taliban, Russia started a major buildup of its armed forces to Ukraine’s border.

Putin understood the Biden administration as a continuation of the Obama administration with many of the same people, and expected further accommodation and appeasement.  Biden’s explicit advanced assurances to Putin that the US would not send “boots on the ground” to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion did not stabilize the situation, but gave Putin a “green light” to invade, understanding that any consequences would be limited to sanctions and military aid and not direct confrontation with US forces.  This refusal is also undoubtedly a factor in Russian forces’ tactic of committing war crimes and atrocities against Ukrainians with impunity, understanding that there will be no consequences from the West beyond those already implemented.


[1] Michel, Casey. “Decolonize Russia.” The Atlantic, May 27, 2022.

[2] Bogden, George E. “How Bill Clinton Sealed Ukraine’s Fate.” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2022.

[3] ibid.

[4] Dorf, Michael C. "Did George W. Bush Set the Stage for Putin? A Concern, not an Apology or Whataboutism." Dorf on Law, February 24, 2022.

[5] Morris, Tim.  "Obama's 'red line' failure assured crisis in Syria.", April 11, 2017.

[6] "UN Human Rights Office estimates more than 306,000 civilians were killed over 10 years in Syria conflict." United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, June 28, 2022.

[7] "Poroshenko: Ukraine can't win war 'with blankets.'" BBC News, September 14, 2014.

[8] "Obama tells Russia's Medvedev more flexibility after election." Reuters, March 26, 2012.

[9] Kirchick, James. “Why it’s Hard to Take Democrats Seriously on Russia.” Brookings Institute, July 27, 2017.

[10] Kirchick, James. “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin.” Brookings Institute, July 27, 2017.

[11] Cillizza, Chris. "It's time to admit it: Mitt Romney was right about Russia." CNN, February 27, 2022.

[12] Batchelor, Tom. "Who is the Butcher of Mariupol? Sanctioned Russian colonel accused of Ukraine hospital bombing." The Independent (UK), March 31, 2022.

[13] King, Ledyard. "NASA to keep paying Russia to send astronauts to space station." USA Today, August 5, 2015.

[14] "US pays Russia $3.9 billion for ferrying astronauts to ISS." TASS, November 15, 2019.

[15] Carter, Jamie. "Despite SpaceX Success NASA Will Pay Russia $90 Million To Take U.S. Astronaut To The ISS." Forbes, June 3, 2020.

[16] O'Toole, Molly. "One Year Later, Obama Administration Still ‘Reviewing’ Lethal Aid to Ukraine." Defense One, March 10, 2015.

[17] Dilanian, Ken, Dan De Luce and Courtney Kube. "Why didn't the U.S. and allies provide Ukraine with a better air defense system?"  NBC News, February 23, 2022.

[18] Lederman, Josh. "U.S. agrees to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, angering Russia." Associated Press, December 23, 2017.

[19] Gedeon, Joseph. "Trump calls Putin 'genius' and 'savvy' for Ukraine invasion."  Politico, February 23, 2022.

[20] Solomon, John. "Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian nightmare: A closed probe is revived." The Hill, April 1, 2019.

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