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Obama poked the Russian bear. Now, Trump wants to dance with it

Vladimir Putin
Yuri Kadobnov | AFP | Getty Images
Vladimir Putin

Is it a better idea to poke the bear or dance with it? When it comes to Russia, it seems like we're about to find out.

The Obama team has been poking the Russian bear for about a year now, reaching a crescendo in the last few days with an outright indictment of Moscow for hacking the Clinton campaign during the election and spreading its truthful, but embarrassing internal communications. Of course that serious accusation made by President Obama himself was paired with the somewhat confusing additional message that Russia is a "weaker country and can't hurt us." Tell that to the Clinton people who are still putting a significant amount of blame for their election loss on the Russian hackers and even Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically.

But it's important to note that President Obama is still a relative newcomer to the poking the Russian bear game. He famously scoffed at Mitt Romney at one of their 2012 election debates when Romney suggested that Russia was a key foreign policy threat. And of course, he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engineered a much more friendly-sounding "reset" effort with Moscow in 2009. The painfully obvious failure of that diplomatic effort seems to have spawned this more nasty approach from the current White House as much as any damage the Russians may or may not have caused Clinton's election hopes.


"Maybe the Trump team is more prepared for this dance than we realize. After all, hasn't just about everyone underestimated him so far? If Trump does have a plan to keep from being snookered by Putin, it probably involves something old and something new."

Now, here comes the Trump administration, which seems like it really wants to dance with the bear. Most of the critics of this approach have been taking Trump's often friendly words for Putin and Co. as evidence of some kind of business or financial misdeeds. But it's much more likely the music Trump wants to dance to is a catchy tune all about joining forces in the fight against Islamic terror. Russia looks like an enticing partner on that issue, but the new administration should tread very carefully. Dancing with the bear is dangerous.

It appears Trump actually admires Putin for his tough talk and actions against jihadists in places like Chechnya and elsewhere. Trump and his administration want to drastically change the Obama team's anti-terror game plan in everything from operations to being a lot more comfortable saying the words "Islamic terror." Putin's approach must be all-too enticing to the new administration that wants to make quick progress and reduce the threat of more ISIS-inspired and planned attacks on the U.S. homeland. Russia's presence in ISIS-besotted Syria means Putin's military combined with U.S. forces could help deal a death blow to ISIS once and for all. There's only one problem: Putin doesn't seem all that interested in that. Russia's presence in Syria for more than year has only resulted in more potent attacks on Syrian rebels and the humanitarian disgrace that continues in Aleppo.

Speaking of which, the Aleppo disaster was also a big topic in President Obama's final news conference of the year last week. Obama once again took to lecturing us about the atrocities in Syrian while claiming he couldn't do much about it. And the reason he "couldn't" do much about it was because of Russia's presence there, which was threatening to make Syria into a much more explosive conflict. It's understandable that President Obama didn't want to take that chance even as it's excruciatingly annoying that he has continued to make sanctimonious and self-serving statements about the Syrian tragedy all year.

And it goes beyond that. Trump is also dead set against the Iran nuclear deal and Russia's ties to Tehran make it look like a natural power broker in renegotiating that deal and imposing sanctions. The problem is that Russia wins either way on that deal. For years, Putin's government prospered by basically flouting the international sanctions on Iran. Now with those sanctions greatly reduced, Russia is simply continuing to profit by continuing to make those deals above the table. If those sanctions come back, it doesn't seem likely Russia will play nice and suddenly go straight. And who knows what Putin will demand from the U.S. as compensation for helping to nix the deal and impose new sanctions?

Maybe the Trump team is more prepared for this dance than we realize. After all, hasn't just about everyone underestimated him so far? If Trump does have a plan to keep from being snookered by Putin, it probably involves something old and something new.

The something old is Trump's plan to boost American military strength. Trump has already set goals to increase troop levels and the number of U.S. naval ships. That kind of buildup will give the U.S. more freedom to bolster our NATO allies and the Baltic nations who have come under more constant threat of Putin's bullying year after year. This is something right out of the old Ronald Reagan playbook, and it was President Reagan who always knew that boosting our military might would eventually bring the Soviets to their knees.

The something new is the unusual number of energy experts and fossil fuel proponents in the Trump administration, led by Trump's pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson's extensive experience in working with the Russians as CEO of oil giant Exxon isn't the weakness so many pundits think it is. For one thing, it makes him a lot more experienced than just about anyone currently in the State Department when it comes to striking successful deals with Moscow. But it also makes him an expert on the exact details of the Russian energy complex. Oil is basically Russia's entire economy. And this plays a massive role in its foreign policy and everything else it does. One of the reasons why the Baltics are very much under Putin's thumb is because they still rely so much on Russian energy. Imagine what bringing American energy experts to those countries to help them set up their own natural gas industries could do to disrupt that unfortunate arrangement. The famously commerce-averse and economics-challenged diplomatic corps wouldn't even think of using that possibility as leverage. Tillerson would.

But the optimistic assumptions about the new Trump team aside, the fact cannot be denied that Putin and the Russians have been playing a rogue's game across much of the world for a long time. They're sadly good at it, and the perils of dancing with the bear do seem to outweigh the chances of a Trump administration — and the U.S. — coming out of such an encounter unscathed.

On the other hand, whatever it is that the Obama administration was doing before it recently decided to poke the Russian bear hasn't really worked either. It is time for a change. The free world will just have to hope Trump's Russia policy beats the odds and doesn't leave things much worse.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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