Over the past few years, Russia seems to have been slipping back towards an authoritarian system of government, with Putin seemingly cementing his control of the country more and more. Along with this, Russia appears to have become increasingly hostile towards the West and emboldened/aggressive internationally. Some examples (not exhaustive) include:

  • Annexation of Crimea
  • Alleged use of cyber attacks to disrupt Western powers
  • Military assertiveness to assist the incumbent regime in Syria
  • Military assistance to prop up Maduro in Venezuela

So, why hasn't the US been more assertive in confronting and pushing back against this new period of Russian aggression?

It seems to me that, during the Cold War, the US was much more willing to confront the Soviet Union, which at the time was much more powerful than Russia currently is. It was also a nuclear-armed state, so the argument that the US is afraid of Russia's nukes doesn't seem to explain it.

  • 41
    Before someone tries to answer this question with conspiracy theories about Donald Trump being under control of Russia, note that all the examples mentioned in the question happened under Obama.
    – Philipp
    Mar 29, 2019 at 15:28
  • 2
    I don't see how this question is much better than, say politics.stackexchange.com/questions/7721/… Mar 29, 2019 at 16:24
  • 4
    I don't think this is POB per se. Indeed, the US is a democratic country and much of the decision-making process is public (e.g. debates by politicians). An answer can certainly be based on that (to answer, ask yourself these questions: do politicians debate the issue(s)? What is the result of the debate there is? Are any issues in the news not debated by politicians?). @Fizz I think it's easier to analyse the American decision-making than it is to analyse the Russian process (even if you understand both countries' languages).
    – JJJ
    Mar 29, 2019 at 16:56
  • 5
    @Philipp: The Maduro assistance was within the past month, but otherwise you are correct.
    – hszmv
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:48
  • 1
    @Fizz I don't think that's same question at all. I'm not asking "Was the US too soft on Russia?". I'm asking "Why has the US (apparently) been more tolerant towards Russia than it was of the Soviet Union during the Cold War?" The first question is opinion-based; the second is asking about the reasons behind certain decisions/policy.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:52

9 Answers 9


The American electorate is extremely divided over ideological lines at the moment. During the Cold War there were still divisions, but we could generally all agree that Americans were always better to deal with than the Soviets. Now that is not the case. A substantial portion of the President's base aren't at all upset (in some instances even gleeful) that the Russians interfered in the American elections since they view that as helping "their side", while folks at the far end of the other side of the spectrum have made statements equating it to an act of war. In your question there is an underlying assumption: that Americans want to do something.

On that note we can't agree that anything should be done. Not in Ukraine, and very little agreement on Syria. Venezuela currently does have a bit more support for something to be done, which I believe is because the United States has historically regarded all of the Americas as under their sphere of influence. But the U.S. track record there has hindered our ability to build consensus with other regional partners (this Wikipedia article is also a pretty good read for this point).

I don't think the U.S. is becoming more tolerant of Russian hostility, our deep political divisions are keeping us from doing much about it and Russia is taking advantage of the circumstances. Combine this point with two long wars, and there's just not any support for using military options to act as a counter balance. The current U.S. mood is much more introspective at the moment (as a whole, definitely not on an individual level).


This is a pretty broad question. If we ask more pointedly why Obama didn't intervene more in Ukraine... He told us that himself.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, wrote in the Obama Doctrine: “Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.” Indeed, Obama told Jeff: “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.” Despite their criticism of Obama, the Republican platform ahead of the 2016 presidential election didn’t call for U.S. weapons to be sent to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels.

Now instead of vague comparisons with the cold war, I think a better one would be to ask why Roosevelt and Churchill gave up Eastern Europe to the Soviets. The answer is pretty similar, they didn't think they couldn't do much about it anyway nor did they have that much strategic interest there, unlike in Greece, where the opposite happened:

British interest in Greece was of long historical standing and connected with its imperial foothold in the Near and Middle East, [...] Moscow was prepared to abandon Greece for the sake of tightening its grip on the rest of the Balkans. As a result, the communist rebellion in Greece was doomed.

And of course, the US never gave up Latin and Central America (supporting coups there), which is not too unlike what Trump does now in Venezuela.

As for Syria, I'm not sure I can find an appropriate parallel during the cold war. (Lebanon maybe?) But after the Arab Spring in Libya, the West had lost appetite to support "moderate" islamists, only to find out that they weren't so moderate or hardly influential on the ground. And US strategic interest in Syria appears limited, compared to that of Turkey etc. At least public opinion seems to be that

President Barack Obama reiterated that the U.S. has “both a moral obligation and a national security interest in, A, ending the slaughter in Syria,” and in “ensuring that we’ve got a stable Syria that is representative of all the Syrian people, and is not creating chaos for its neighbors.”

But a New York Times/CBS opinion poll showed that almost two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. has no responsibility to address the fighting in Syria.

We'll see if the more pragmatic Trump sticks with the Kurds now that the main reason to support them (fight against ISIS) appears gone.

As for the militaristic wind of change in the past decade...

After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Putin likely concluded that Russia could use hard power in its neighborhood without the possibility of a decisive military response from the West.

So some analysts (more than one for sure) consider that war as the catalyzing event. There is probably some briefing or opinion poll somewhere that says Georgia wasn't all that important to the US.

And finally, the Western response (not just to the war in Georgia, but also Ukraine etc.) has been largely based on economic sanctions. These have also been used in the cold war. And they eventually worked, but it took decades for their ultimate effect to occur. What is different from the cold war is that there seems to be more of a rift now between the US and Western Europe as to the extent of sanctions (and not just on Russia, but also Iran etc.)

The growth of Europe-Russia economic interdependencies has been played for that effect:

“It’s Diplomacy 101,” Ernest Moniz, the veteran U.S. nuclear negotiator and former Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama, told TIME after attending several of the closed-door sessions with European diplomats. “If a wedge opens up, you exploit it. You drive it as deep as you can.”

“The Americans expect the Europeans to follow along,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the head of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “They will find that Europe won’t.”

Many Europeans support that approach. A Pew Research survey published on Feb. 15 [2019] found that only around 10% of people in France and Germany have faith in Trump’s handling of global affairs; they are two or three times more likely to trust the leaders of Russia and China.

Trump talking of Europe as an economic enemy surely didn't help with that recent confidence slump. But the fundamentals were in place long before:

These days, there is much discussion about a new strategy of “containment” towards Russia. European policymakers are going back and reading George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” – written in 1946 and published anonymously as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs in 1947 – and wondering whether it is once again relevant. In it, Kennan, then a diplomat at the US embassy in Moscow and later the head of policy planning in the State Department, said the United States should “regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena” and called for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies”. That meant “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”

Even during the Cold War, “containment” was a notoriously vague term. What began as an attempt to prevent further Soviet expansion later turned into a more aggressive attempt to “roll back” Soviet influence. In his memoirs, published in 1967 as the United States was escalating its involvement in Vietnam, Kennan said “containment” had been misunderstood: he had wanted to prevent Soviet expansionism using political rather than military means. There were different ideas about the focus and scope of “containment” as well as about means – thus John Lewis Gaddis, the leading historian of containment, distinguished between “symmetrical” containment (responding in kind) and “asymmetrical” containment (picking your battles). But what “containment” might mean now is even less clear than it was during the Cold War.

The biggest difference between the Cold War and the post-post-Cold War is the extent of economic interdependence between Russia and the West – and in particular between Russia and Europe. This is partly a consequence of globalization. But it was also a deliberate strategy. For the last twenty years or so, the West has expanded trade and tried to integrate powers such as Russia and China into the international system. This in turn was based on two assumptions. The first was that economic interdependence would lead gradually but inexorably to democratisation. The second was that economic interdependence would turn these powers into “responsible stakeholders”, as Robert Zoellick put it in a speech on China in 2005. The greatest achievement of this approach was Chinese and Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).


After the annexation of Crimea, Russia was immediately rejected from the G8. As Russia has destabilized eastern Ukraine, the West has also gradually imposed remarkably tough economic sanctions. The imposition of sanctions has been led by the United States, which had much less trade with Russia than Europeans and therefore less to lose. But Europeans have reluctantly followed and imposed sanctions of their own, especially after Flight MH17 was shot down in July – a kind of tipping point for public opinion in countries such as Germany. The question now is what happens next if Russian expansionism continues. Do we continue to unwind economic interdependence until it reaches the levels that existed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (or with Iran now)?

The post-2014 sanctions have had as a result a reduction in this interdependence:

enter image description here

Note however that 2017 saw a 20% rebounce in EU-Russia trade, so that graph is somewhat misleading as to the magnitude of the long term impact of sanctions (the slide has some sectoral data, so I thought it interesting, well as going back a fair bit for perspective). The short-term trend with 2017 included (no newer data seems available just yet, it gets updated in April), looks like

enter image description here

Likewise European FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in Russian (which was about 75% of total FDI in Russia in 2014) also sank in 2015 to about half its 2013 figure (same source as that graph). And some of the effects were severe for Russia, e.g. 50% devaluation of the Rubble in 2014.

The reduced economic ties actually make it easier for future action (economic of otherwise) against Russia to be taken. Whether it will get back to cold-war levels... is a tough question (and depends on many factors), but it's clearly something that won't happen overnight. And those ties act as a brake on any radical idea of containment.

  • Obama imposed sanctions on targeted Russian individuals and NATO increased its presence in the Black Sea and stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia. Jan 18, 2021 at 15:35

There is a joke on Chinese websites:

"Why did you attack (some places that US had a war with)?"
"We suspected them of having mass destruction weapons."
"But why don't you attack Russia?"
"They really do have mass destruction weapons.

For #2, the only government that is proven having been doing cyber attacks to a foreign country (as I know) is the US government. It's almost impossible to confirm an attack that involves computers in a country really organized by its government, unless a government document says so.

For others, they all involve instability of a 3rd country. They may not really care too much about what is the absolutely best solution for the 3rd country. But in the worst case, something like ISIS appears. If the US behavior is acceptable, we could only say nobody is approaching an ideal solution. We can't say the US is all right, because the other side did at least one tiniest thing wrong. Russians may have done something comparable to them, not much worse, but just on a different stance.

There is no reason that Russia would ever evolve into a religious or terrorist country. Neither does it have reasons to allow Crimea turning into such a place.

Just nobody would be able to turn a 3rd country into the best developed place very soon. And nobody would want them turning into the worst chaos. Unfortunately for the people there, other factors in between are just details for the big countries. TL;DR as the joke said, it's just not very beneficial being too aggressive to Russia.

  • I'm not sure what you mean by proven. Obviously, the US, like all other countries, denies its cyber warfare operations. So if we accept denials, no one has done it. If we don't, though, then there's the US (Stuxnet), Israel (Stuxnet), China (2018 Mariott hack), Russia (various), North Korea (Sony, WannaCry etc), United Kingdom (Al Qaeda hacks) etc.
    – Obie 2.0
    May 22, 2019 at 5:30
  • @Obie2.0 Thanks for the information. Firstly I would not consider Al Qaeda hacks hacking a foreign country. Then at first I thought at least some of them beside Stuxnet should really be done by the governments, so this answer should be partially wrong. But after some searching I consider them suspicious. It's difficult to believe NK had any competent hackers, or the hackers would steal NSA technology only to spread a virus. For China and Russia, it's very possible that some individuals or hacked devices in these countries are involved in the hacks, but never clearly linked to governments.
    – user23013
    May 22, 2019 at 14:52
  • @Obie2.0 Evidences or claims not sponsored by the US government or US companies would be helpful. But as US has the most security experts, it probably has to be biased in this way or that way. Anyway, as this answer says, if you know about security, you would know that it is extremely difficult to trace the original source of a cyber attack. It's possible if the hacker makes some mistakes, someone arrests them, or you get enough samples to know how it spreads in the case of a virus. But if the researcher or news report says there are only possible links, it basically means no links.
    – user23013
    May 22, 2019 at 15:06
  • Any security expert will be from some country. ;)
    – Obie 2.0
    May 22, 2019 at 15:07
  • 1
    @Obie 2.0 US cyber warfare operations were proven by Snowden.
    – convert
    Feb 2, 2022 at 14:31

Numerous reasons. For start, the United States has been in a state of war since September 2001, and Obama was characterized by an avoidance of further war during his presidency (He is to date, the only U.S. President to have served his total presidency at War). There are many sentiments on both sides of the aisle that just want to avoid wars and strong anti-interventionalist movements (The Libertarian Right tends to be opposed to war for reasons other than defense of self or allies, the left just tends towards no wars period). This played a part in the Ukraine situation.

With the Syrian Civil war, the United States never loved the Syrian Government and by the time the idea was considered, the anti-government forces included terrorist organizations including remnants of Al-Quadia. The political sentiment moved from fighting a Russian backed Syrian Government to a policy more akin to the old man from the recent Godzilla movie "Let them fight." There's not much to be one by propting up an anti-U.S. rebellion movement fighting against an Anti-U.S. government forces.

The Maduro thing is relatively recent and the U.S. policy is to support the opposition leader over Maduro, so we'll have to wait and see. It doesn't help that Russia's active involvement occurred around the same time as a hurricane of domestic stories hit the U.S. (The Mueller Report's findings, the Avenatti arrest, and the Jessui Smollett charges being dropped) which have occupied most news network's general reporting.

The Cyber Security issues are hard to peg down, as they tend to be covertly dealt with so as to not reveal the new protections and better investigate. Because of this, it could be a great many battles are fought on this issue, but the battles are not discussed (The First Cold war was a very busy time for intelligence communities and could be said that it was a war of spies more than anything else... a great deal of winning that conflict was just gathering information on what the adversary was doing).

  • 5
    +1 Especially for the last paragraph. Just because the U.S. isn't sending hundreds of thousands of troops to fight proxy wars doesn't mean it isn't doing anything with its intelligence community. While the U.S. intelligence community may not currently be as openly aggressive as the Russian or Chinese ones, it's still one of the largest (if not the largest) in the world and far from idle. But you won't hear about most of what it does until years or decades later, if ever.
    – reirab
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:40
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    "...characterized by an avoidance of further war during his presidency..." but didn't he get involved in additional conflicts? And increase the use of drones? On citizens? Without due process? I don't think anyone can seriously claim that obama was anti-war.
    – acpilot
    Mar 30, 2019 at 2:25
  • @acpilot Indeed he did, but his platform (and one of the reasons many people voted for him) was. Someone who is not anti-war can certainly run on a platform which is.
    – forest
    Mar 30, 2019 at 2:41
  • @acpilot: Especially considering Obama was a lot more aggressive in foreign policy his second term (when he didn't have to run for Presidency again) than his first term.
    – hszmv
    Apr 1, 2019 at 13:37

I think US is being very assertive in confronting Russia, and Russia may see from its point of view reasons to become more assertive (IMHO the dichotomy assertive vs hostile implies bias) against the West.

  1. Military concerns: Could Russia becoming increasingly hostile towards the West and emboldened/aggressive internationally be in response to a perceived external threat? Let's look from their point of view. For instance, it might fear NATO encircling it (also 3 ) and possibly arming the new Eastern NATO countries with nuclear weapons like it was done in Turkey in 1961, 50 of which are still being currently stored in the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Now combine this precedent with the fact that NATO has first strike as a policy and with knowing The US does have a first strike policy (also 10). In fact President Trump has threatened First Strike against North Korea, something that one third of Americans might support. It would not come as a surprise that North Korea has also threatened the US, and probably was the first to do so [Citation needed].

enter image description here

  1. Economical concerns: Many countries which were trading partners with Russia no longer do business with it now they are part of NATO, the EU, or vying to join one of them (let's be honest, Russia itself has much to blame for that). That is probably hurting Russia where it matters most: the wallet. And, subtly blocking Russia from accessing global markets is a very effective way for the US to be very assertive in confronting Russia. Trade wars are still wars (I suspect the Russian claim the US wants to blockade its energy exports to be more of a ploy to increase support amongst its citizens than reality). In fact, I am rather surprised the US has not pressured India to stop trading with Russia; that could be because of the ongoing commercial/military relationship between the US and Pakistan.

The short answer is that back at the fall of the USSR (during HW Bush's administration), Russia transitioned from a socialist to a capitalist state. It was no longer an ideological foe which had to be opposed on every front across the world; it was now an economic competitor vying with the US in international markets. And not even a particularly strong economic competitor, at that: the Soviet model had not prepared Russia for entry into competitive markets. This called for revisions in US foreign policy. We refocused our military posture to focus on smaller, more localized threats — Iran, Iraq, North Korea — and quickly took on a kind of 'global police' role that focused less on the potential for actual war and more on pacification, quick incursions for limited goals, and occasional regime change efforts.

At the moment, the US is more concerned with problems in the mideast and the expansion of China into the South China sea than with Russian exploits in the Ukraine. During the Obama administration this was mere pragmatics. Obama was saddled with two protracted wars and a collapsed economy held over from the W Bush administration, and entering into a conflict with Russia was unappealing: something I'm sure Putin considered as a factor when deciding to annex the Ukraine. We simply did not have the free resources to face off against a powerful nation at the time, so Obama contented himself with UN-backed sanctions to try to pressure Russia out. Once the Trump administration came in — noting Trump's preference for isolationism and his express admiration for strong-arm, dictatorial leaders and tactics — Crimea simply disappeared from the national conversation, and Trump saw nothing to confront Russia over at all.

Without the ideological drive of curbing socialist expansion, Russia lost much of its 'threat' factor in US policy decisions. Russian actions have taken on the character of 'bush' wars: local disputes that the US may or may not have some investment in, but that do not represent a challenge to our nation or way of life. This has allowed Russia more leeway to act aggressively than it would have previously enjoyed.


During the Trump presidency, it's due to how the Constitution has divided power between Congress and the President.

Congress has very limited powers in international affairs:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations...

To declare War...

Compare to the President's powers:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States...

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties...

...he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers...

In short, Congress has one thing they can do in response to Russian actions: they can impose economic sanctions. They've also got the power to declare war on Russia, but they don't have the ability to prosecute that war -- commanding the military is a power reserved for the President.

Compare that to the President's powers. He can negotiate diplomatic agreements either with Russia or with third parties. He can engage in military action short of war, including dispatching troops to countries threatened by Russia. He can cut off (or threaten to cut off) diplomatic relations.

The Constitution places almost all the power to confront a country in the hands of the President. With Trump favorably inclined towards Russia, that greatly limits what the rest of the country can do.

  • 4
    Your last paragraph seems to imply the reason is to do with Trump being somewhat pro-Russia. However, as Philipp mentioned in the comments to the question, many of the examples given of US tolerance towards Russia occurred during Obama's term.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:01
  • 1
    The other answers analyzed why there was tolerance towards Russia during Obama's term; I'm covering why that didn't change in the past two years.
    – Mark
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:04
  • Ok, in that case, I think it might improve your answer if you were to clarify that at the start - that you are specifically focusing on the Trump era. I agree that in the past couple of years, Trump's favor towards Russia has probably been a factor.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:33

According to various news-sources Russia very likely has dirt on the current POTUS (Donald Trump). Therefore it could very well be the case that Donald Trump, where he was in a position to do so, held back in confronting Russia.





It took like 10 seconds to prove the premise of the question wrong if one were to look at US actions beginning in 2017.

Source: https://www.gop.com/trump-admins-tough-actions-against-russia-rsr/

Through Sanctions And Beefing Up NATO, The Trump Admin Has Held Russia Accountable For Hostile Actions

The Trump Administration has implemented a wide array of sanctions and other punitive actions against Russia for their destabilizing actions and provocations against the U.S. and its allies.

In response to Russian interference in the 2016 election and other malfeasance, the Trump Administration has sanctioned Russian oligarchs and intelligence entities.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, the U.S. sanctioned numerous Russian actors for violating non-proliferation laws by supporting weapons programs in Iran and Syria, and supporting North Korea's development of weapons of mass destruction.

The Trump Administration has issued sanctions against more than one hundred Russian actors and firms for Russia's destabilizing actions in Ukraine and its ongoing occupation of Crimea.

In March 2017, in response to Russia's use of a military-grade chemical weapon in the United Kingdom, the Trump Administration ordered multiple Russian consulates in the United States closed and expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers.

Due to sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, the Russian economy and Russian geo-economic projects have been severely constrained.

In 2018, as Russian investors reacted to new sanctions, the Russian Ruble made its biggest fall in over three years, and, as of July 2018, is down nearly nine percent against the dollar.

As a part of its sanctions against Russia, the United States has prevented numerous companies from partnering with Russian offshore oil projects, denying these projects access to capital and key resources.

The Trump Administration has also opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin's largest geo-economic project, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Russia.

In the wake of Russian provocations, President Trump has exercised U.S. military power and worked to bolster U.S. allies in Europe.

In 2017, President Trump approved the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine addressing the country's vulnerability to Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces.

Under the Trump Administration, Russian mercenaries and other pro-Syrian regime forces attacking U.S. troops in Syria were killed.

The U.S. has increased troops and its military capability in Eastern Europe and dramatically increased training and drills with its NATO partners.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense increased its spending as part of the European Deterrence Initiative by $1.4 billion dollars.

Due to pressure from President Trump, U.S.' NATO allies have increased defense expenditures by five percent.

I didn't read the entire post and this information might be there but Russia has threatened to build high-speed missiles, Trump has told them if they do then he'll be deploying missiles and ramping up troops of his own right on the Russian border.

It is clear that at least for the last 2 years, the premise of the question that the US has not be assertive nor confronted Russia is not true.

  • 13
    The question is not whether the U.S. has confronted Russia at all, but rather why it hasn't been more assertive in doing so. Also, I wouldn't exactly call a GOP press release the most reliable of sources on the matter. It may contain some useful information, but it would be much better to find it from a less biased and/or more definitive source.
    – reirab
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:52
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    I'm not suggesting that the US has done nothing, or that Trump has done less than Obama (honestly, I'm not trying to pitch this as anti-Trump). However, it seems to me there has been a lack of conviction in general on the part of the US, which is shown by the fact that, in many of these conflicts, Russia is winning /has won. They took Crimea and Ukraine isn't going to get it back. They have won in Syria, as Assad has effectively won the war there. I don't think the US during the Cold War would have 'looked the other way' and given the USSR so many 'easy victories'.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:53
  • 2
    @reirab yes, precisely my point. The US did something, but not enough to affect the outcome. The situation in Venezuela is still unfolding, and perhaps we will see the US be more assertive there.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:55

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