Then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and then-President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee)

Ten years ago this month, Mitt Romney, who was on the verge of clinching the Republican presidential nomination, designated Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” In one of their presidential debates that fall, Barack Obama took aim at the statement: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Obama won that rhetorical battle, and reelection. But today, with Vladimir Putin ravaging Ukraine, it has become commonplace to deem Romney prescient and Obama’s attempts to “reset” relations with Russia naive. 

Romney himself has not been shy about taking a victory lap, issuing a statement in response to the invasion of Ukraine that read: “Putin’s impunity predictably follows our tepid response to his previous horrors in Georgia and Crimea, our naive efforts at a one-sided ‘reset,’ and the shortsightedness of ‘America First.’ The ’80s called and we didn’t answer.”

But if you’re going to argue that Putin would have been deterred, had we only listened to Mitt, you might want to listen to what the GOP contender was actually saying. 

Reviewing the Romney and Obama records from the 2010s is essential if it yields lessons about thwarting Russian imperialism. A good place to start is Romney’s 2010 campaign book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. In those pages, the former Massachusetts governor characterized Putin—accurately—as fixated on reconstituting the Russian empire, while painting Obama as catering to the Russian leader’s wishes: 

President Barack Obama’s decision to walk away from our missile defense program in Poland and in the Czech Republic was a huge concession to Putin, as is the stalling on the admission of Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO. Russia welcomes concessions and these, like their predecessors, were not repaid in kind. Russia takes, President Obama gives, and Russia demands more.

In the book’s 64-point “Agenda for a Free and Strong America,” Romney included “Fast-track NATO admission of our friends” and “Maintain a defense budget of at least 4 percent of our GDP, and at least twice the actual and comparable military spending of either Russia or China.” Soon after the book was published, Romney opposed Senate ratification of the New-START arms control treaty, calling it Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet,” largely because, he claimed, “America must effectively get Russia’s permission for any missile defense expansion.”

Intriguingly, Romney did not call Russia our “number one geopolitical foe” in the book. That was said in March 2012 as the private equity mogul was trying to exploit a “hot mic” moment of Obama’s. The president was overheard telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that disagreements with Putin over missile defense “can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space … This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” 

Shown that clip by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Romney renewed his complaints, and added that Russia is, “without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling, indeed.”

So what would have happened if a President Romney had sought to counter Russia with a quick NATO admission of Ukraine and Georgia, a new European missile defense system, and a bigger overall military budget?

With regard to America’s military budget, we don’t have to guess. America’s military budget is now more than 12 timesthe size of Russia’s. That’s not as big a gap as 10 years ago, when it was about 18 times bigger, but it’s still far more than the mere doubling Romney was insisting on. The U.S. is not quite meeting Romney’s standard of 4 percent of GDP for defense spending; from 2011 to 2020, as American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan declined, so did defense spending, from 4.8 to 3.7 percent of GDP. (It was at 3 percent by the end of the Obama presidency.) Russia’s defense budget as a share of GDP is a little higher than ours, at 4.3 percent. But since America’s economy dwarfs Russia’s, so does our military spending. And it still wasn’t enough to deter Putin from invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. 

We also don’t have to guess whether a new European missile defense system would have deterred Putin. Despite Romney’s accusations, Obama implemented a European-based missile defense system over Russia’s strenuous objections.

When Romney chastised Obama for scrapping George W. Bush’s planned Polish-Czech-based missile defense system, he failed to mention that Obama replaced those plans with his own. Both the Bush and Obama plans were designed to stop Iranian, not Russian, missiles. But the Bush plan focused on long-range missiles. Obama’s Pentagon—led by Bush holdover Secretary Robert Gates—determined that short- and medium-range missiles from Iran were a more significant concern and, with NATO support, moved ahead with a reconfigured system based in Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Germany. 

Although Iran was the Obama administration’s primary concern, as Gates explained in his memoir, Duty, Putin believed that missile defense in Europe contained his country. The Poles and Czechs thought so, too, viewing the system as a “concrete manifestation” that America was deeply committed to their protection, according to Gates. That’s why scrapping the plans raised the question of whether Obama was leaving eastern Europe vulnerable to Russia.

But Putin hated Obama’s missile defense plan more than Bush’s. When the Romanian component was installed in 2016, the Kremlin denounced it as a “threat to Russia” and disingenuously claimed that it violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The former George W. Bush State Department official Heather Conley said at the time that Polish and Czech officials “wound up getting with the current system [something] more robust than they had anticipated.”

As Romney wished, a European-based missile defense system was implemented, and a more robust one at that. Yet that did not deter Putin from his bloody attacks on Ukraine.

Another of Romney’s recommendations was to fast-track Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. And it’s not crazy to argue that if Ukraine were in NATO, Putin would not have invaded. But it’s hardly an open-and-shut case. Even if a President Romney had called for admitting Ukraine into NATO, in all likelihood admission would not have happened. In 2010, when No Apology was published, Ukraine elected the Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych as president. Soon after, Ukraine’s legislature passed a law banning membership in any military alliance, which was enacted to end the pursuit of NATO membership. This was supported by Ukrainian public opinion; in a September 2009 Pew poll, only 28 percent of Ukrainians wanted membership in NATO. (The internal politics of Ukraine has shifted considerably since then; in 2019, Ukraine amended its constitution to state its intention to join NATO, a position that held plurality support in public polling.)

Even if Ukraine had sought NATO membership in 2013 as a President Romney was inaugurated, it would have required unanimous approval among the NATO nations. That did not exist back then and did not exist in the run-up to Putin’s invasion. At the 2008 NATO summit, then President Bush advocated admitting Ukraine and Georgia, but at least seven nations refused. The New York Times reported, “Germany and France have said they believe that since neither Ukraine nor Georgia is stable enough to enter the program now, a membership plan would be an unnecessary offense to Russia, which firmly opposes the move.” If a President Romney had tried to force the issue, he would only have widened a rift within NATO—one that Putin would have eagerly exploited. 

But for argument’s sake, let’s say a President Romney had persuaded Ukraine and the entire NATO alliance to embrace his position. Would that have deterred a Putin invasion, or sped it along? 

If it is Putin’s ambition to reconstitute Russia’s ancient empire, he might not have sat still while Romney led an aggressive expansion of NATO. Last month, Putin said as much: “NATO leadership has been blunt in its statements that they need to accelerate and step up efforts to bring the alliance’s infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders,” and therefore, “we cannot stay idle and passively observe these developments.” In 2022, Putin had that reaction to the United States merely refusing to rule out an eventual admission of Ukraine. It stands to reason that Putin in 2013 would have had a similar response to the beginning of the admission process, and might have launched an invasion before Ukraine found protection under NATO’s nuclear umbrella.

Ultimately, we can’t know what, if anything, could have deterred Putin’s Ukraine gambit. Deterrence, if possible, would have been preferable to the horror Ukraine is experiencing. But if Putin was undeterrable, then the approach taken by both Obama and Biden—mixing diplomatic overtures with military preparedness—has proved its merit. 

The two Democratic presidents didn’t roll over for Putin as Donald Trump was always inclined to do. But, to the annoyance of the Republican hawks like Romney, Obama and Biden routinely pursued diplomatic openings. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan has detailed, Obama notched several accomplishments through his “reset” with Russia, including the Iranian nuclear deal.

In 2012, Romney coupled his ranking of Russia as America’s top “foe” with a crowning of Iran as America’s top “threat.” Three years later, driven by his antipathy to diplomacy with either nation, he urged Obama to “walk away” from the deal. Following Romney’s crudely hawkish logic would have meant missing an opportunity to defuse a nuclear threat. (Though the opportunity would soon be sabotaged by Trump, who rashly pulled out of the deal in 2018 even though Iran was in compliance at the time.)

Biden began his presidency, not with belligerent rhetoric targeting Russia, but with an agreement to extend the New-START treaty. Avoiding overt provocations deprived Putin of the ability to credibly shift blame for his imperialist invasion onto the United States. The reason why so much of the free world is united in support of Ukraine and the isolation of Russia is because there’s no confusion about who the bad guy is.

Was deterrence even possible? Consider that David Leonhardt of The New York Times recently explored the question, “Was there any way to prevent the horrific war in Ukraine?” and then looked at the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq for an answer: 

There are certainly differences between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2022. Some of those differences make Russia harder to confront, especially its nuclear arsenal. But other differences suggest that Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine should have been more likely than Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait to inspire an international military coalition.

He concluded that “the European Union’s wishful pacifism and the U.S.’s failed belligerence … created a power vacuum that Putin exploited.”

But there’s one thing that Hussein and Putin had in common: Neither was deterred. War wasn’t prevented. It was the invasion of Kuwait itself that prompted the international coalition to form. Unlike today, the Gulf War coalition involved direct military involvement from the United States and others because, as Leonhardt noted, Russia has those pesky nukes. But today’s coalition is landing hard blows with its soft power. With the Russian ruble and stock market tanking, the Kremlin is now complaining about being the victim of an “economic war.”

In a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Obama commented, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” On its own, the statement, which is getting chided anew, comes across as glib and defeatist. It can be argued that such comments—along with the mild international reactions to earlier Russian seizures of Georgian and Ukrainian land—fed Putin’s sense that he could waltz into Kyiv. But Obama had more to say:

Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there … the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.

The Obama Doctrine, sometimes described as “don’t do stupid shit,” was rooted in a view that military power has its limits. Obama was suggesting that it would behoove Putin to follow the same logic. The Russian autocrat might be able to seize Ukraine militarily, but he might regret it later because without other sources of power—such as a healthy domestic economy, international alliances, and genuine public support—his hold on Ukraine, perhaps even his hold on Russia itself, could slip. And if Moscow is hell-bent on doing “stupid shit,” then Washington ought to avoid provocations that could weaken global opposition to Russia. In effect, Obama suggested that a rope-a-dope strategy would work better than a reckless rush to engage militarily with a nuclear Russia.

After a close look at what Romney was proposing in 2012, we can see that he wasn’t right all along. But was Obama? Let’s hope so. 

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.