Russian troops and transport planes had barely arrived in Crimea on Friday when the politics of the ongoing crisis began.
“Hillary’s Russia Reset: Nailed It,” proclaimed the website for America Rising, an opposition research firm and political action committee that has been taking aim at potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates since soon after the 2012 contest. The tumblr post tweaking Clinton featured the then Secretary of State cackling as she held out her infamous “reset” button with the Russian foreign minister, a gesture that can come across as silly in light of recent events in Ukraine.
But that was just the opening salvo in what has been a steady stream of knocks on the presumed Democratic front-runner, with Arizona Senator John McCain telling The Daily Beast on Saturday that Clinton “got it all wrong.”
“She believed that somehow there would be a reset with a guy who was a KGB colonel who always had ambitions to restore the Russian empire,” the 2008 Republican presidential nominee added. “That’s what this is all about.”
A political commentator for the conservative website Breitbart agreed, writing, “President Barack Obama bears ultimate responsibility for this failure. Yet Hillary Clinton was its eager, laughing emissary. Add the Ukraine, along with Benghazi, to her long list of non-accomplishments.”
Republican operatives, meanwhile, suggested that the events in Ukraine had the power to shift the narrative on Clinton’s time at the State Department. After four years removed from the back-and-forth of politics, Clinton left office at the beginning of 2013 as popular as she had ever been, widely perceived as a stateswoman above the fray. Save for the Republican obsession with Benghazi—which has yet to be seen as much of a negative for Clinton among the broader public—if anything, conservatives were left with attacking Clinton State Department tenure as being one without many achievements of consequence.
“Hillary is lacking any tangible policy accomplishments from her time at State,” said Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising PAC. “The Russia ‘reset’ is a rare example of a noteworthy policy shift that she’s attempted and it's proved to be a tone deaf mess.”
Republican strategists acknowledged that foreign policy snafus do not typically matter much in domestic political campaigns, the sputtering out of control of what was supposed to be a focal point of Clinton’s tenure could speak to some larger doubts about Clinton’s competence.
“Hillary Clinton’s argument will be centered around her experience,” said Kevin Madden, a senior advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “But her record of underestimating Russia, and being either the naïve architect or the chief proponent of the reset policy could serve to undermine her case. She has weakened our position around the globe.”
Over the past four years, Madden added that Clinton’s usually divisive political profile has been cordoned off while she was at state. The approaching campaign season and the bad news from halfway around the globe means she can no longer be above politics.
“That is over,” he said.
Democrats, however, defended Clinton’s and the Obama administration’s record on Russia after the so-called “reset,” pointing out that before Vladimir Putin assumed power, the two countries were able to achieve progress on a number of matters, including opening up supply routes to Afghanistan, an arms reduction treaty and sanctions against Iran.
“Things became more difficult with Russia in later years [of the administration],” said Michael McFaul, the ambassador to Russia from 2012-2014 and a key Obama policy advisor prior to that. “But just because things became more difficult does not mean that those achievements do not remain important. Our policy has been quite consistent. What has changed is Russia and the Russian government and their policies.”
As for the reset, “It was never a policy in my view,” McFaul said. “The reset was never about having better relations with Russia. I said that a hundred times—it was about achieving outcomes that were in the American interest.”
And he said Clinton’s role regarding Russia would withstand any kind of scrutiny.
“The person that was always the toughest vis a vis Russia was Secretary Clinton in our inter-agency debates. There should be no confusion about that. She took on all the tough pieces in the portfolio. There should be no illusions about where she stands on these issues. Nobody was a more clear-eyed communicator about where we agreed and especially where we disagreed with Russian than Secretary Clinton. Nobody was a greater supporter of those countries that were threatened by Russia.”
There are Republicans as well who cautioned against attempting to politicize too much on the latest developments from Crimea, especially with no resolution in sight. After the attack on the embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya, the Mitt Romney campaign quickly blamed Obama, leading to something of a backlash, as the campaign spent several days explaining itself.
“I personally believe it is a reach to blame Secretary Clinton for developments in Ukraine,” said Charlie Black, who advised both the McCain and Romney campaigns. The problem was with the Obama administration in part, but more with the leadership in Moscow.
“The Obama Administration failed to help Ukraine in its negotiations with the IMF last fall, or to ally with the EU in providing additional financial assistance. Yanukovich backed out of the association deal with the EU in November because the country was broke and Putin offered $15 billion. So, the crisis was precipitated by short-sightedness on the part of the US and the EU, Yanukovich made a terrible decision, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is [to be] blamed on the dictator Vladimir Putin.”
But those already gearing up for a 2016 contest said that more was to come.
“Given Russia's increasingly hostile posture it's not hard to imagine Putin attempting something in the lead up to a 2016 campaign that will once again highlight just how misguided Secretary Clinton's Russia strategy was,” Miller said.