Obama vs. Romney: Whom Would Putin Pick?

A re-elected Barack Obama, despite his support for Russia's WTO membership, the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and his overlooking of the Kremlin’s crackdown on the opposition, may not really be preferred by Russia's leaders over Mitt Romney.

By Lilia Shevtsova and David J. Kramer

In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney vowed to take a hard line in dealing with Russia. “Under my administration,” he said, “our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone.” Earlier in the campaign, Romney had cited Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.” The party platform states:

"Russia should be granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations, but not without sanctions on Russian officials who have used the government to violate human rights. We support enactment of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia."

A week later, the Democratic Party platform criticized Romney’s comments on Russia and defended the Obama Administration’s approach to dealing with Russia:

"The Cold War mentality represented by Mitt Romney's identification of Russia as ‘our number one geopolitical foe’ ignores the very real common interest we share with Russia in reducing nuclear stockpiles, stopping additional proliferation by countries such as Iran and North Korea, and preventing nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. The President's ‘reset’ policy toward Russia has produced significant cooperation in these areas, as well as in Russian support for the Northern Distribution Network that supplies our troops in Afghanistan. […] At the same time, we are candid with the Russians when we disagree. The administration will not put aside our differences but will raise them directly with the Russian government. And we will continue to strongly criticize Russian actions that we oppose, such as their support for the Assad regime in Syria."

Russian President Vladimir Putin wasted little time weighing in with his reaction to the two candidates’ views. In a recent interview, Putin praised the Kremlin’s relations with the Obama Administration, notwithstanding ongoing differences over missile defense:

"I believe that over the last four years Presidents Obama and Medvedev have made a lot of progress on the way to strengthening Russia-US relations. We have signed the new START treaty. Backed by the U.S., Russia has become a full-fledged member of the World Trade Organization. There have been more reasons to be optimistic about our bilateral relations: our strengthened cooperation in combating terrorism and organized crime, in the non-proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction and others. In other words, we have accumulated quite a lot of positive experience."

Putin also described Obama as “an honest person who really wants to change much for the better.” At the same time, Putin didn’t pass up a chance to blast Romney:

"As for Mr. Romney’s position, we understand that this is to a certain extent motivated by the election race and election rhetoric, but I also think that he was obviously wrong, because such behavior on the international arena is the same as using nationalism and segregation as tools of US domestic policy. It has the same effect on the international arena when a politician, a person who aspires to lead a nation, especially a superpower like the US, proclaims someone to be an enemy."

Does all this mean that Russia would prefer to see Obama reelected? Would the Kremlin go so far as to help his chances by not creating problems for him? Not necessarily.

The Kremlin has one criterion by which it assesses the U.S. presidential candidates: namely, which one will help it pursue its own domestic agenda. The Kremlin’s relations with the outside world are instrumental to achieving its domestic goals, and the key domestic goal for Putin’s team today is survival, even as evidence mounts that its position has started to crumble.

In his first term, President Obama proved to be a welcome partner for the Kremlin, especially after relations at the end of the George W. Bush Administration plummeted following the Russian invasion of Georgia. Things between Putin and Bush got off to a good start in Ljubljana in the summer of 2001, when Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and “saw his soul” and Putin soon after supported Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks, even against the advice of his close advisers. For Putin, partnering with Washington in the war on terrorism was to mark the beginning of a new era: the era of the U.S.-Russian world condominium with Bush and Putin at the helm of the global pyramid.

It didn’t take long for the bilateral relationship to sour, however. From the U.S. perspective, Putin’s crackdown at home — exemplified by the arrest in October 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky — and his interference in his neighbors’ affairs were responsible for the steady decline. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, support for the color revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, expansion of NATO eastward, and missile defense were the sources of friction that Putin later skillfully used to his advantage in playing up the external threats to Russia (recall his post-Beslan remarks in 2004 and his February 2007 Munich speech — even his reference to the United States as the Third Reich in May 2007). The Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 sunk relations between Moscow and Washington to their lowest depth since the collapse of the USSR.

Largely unknown to the Kremlin, Obama initially was viewed suspiciously by the Russian leadership, which feared that the new American President would continue pushing values. Quickly those suspicions were dispelled, however, as Obama and his advisers made the “reset” one of his key foreign policy priorities but downplayed human rights.

Here is how Dmitry Suslov, a member of the pro-Kremlin Valdai Discussion Club, explains the positive attitude toward the Obama Administration, a view likely shared among the Russian official establishment:

"The Obama administration is pursuing the most realistic and least ideology-driven foreign policy in U.S. history since the end of the Cold War […] The success of the reset policy was largely due to the significant tempering by the U.S. of its criticism of Russia on issues of democracy and human rights. […] The U.S. response to the targeted measures recently taken by the Russian authorities against opposition leaders was unassuming. The isolated and openly low-key statements being made by administration officials on this matter are nothing more than a nod to the election campaign and are mainly designed not to give the Republicans another opportunity of accusing the White House of betrayal."

Obama’s unexpected rejection of the normative stance and his desire to build consensual, “win-win” relations with Russia wound up inadvertently handing the Kremlin a present as Russian leaders were seeking international legitimacy for their imitation democracy, as well as support for then-President Dmitri Medvedev’s modernization rhetoric. The Kremlin quickly learned how to deal with the Obama Administration. Although, to be clear, the U.S. did accomplish goals of its own: Afghan transit, the New START Treaty and a resolution on Iran. 

By 2010, the reset policy with Russia was being touted by Obama Administration officials as one of its top foreign policy successes. This, in turn, may have created an impression in Moscow that Obama needed to keep the reset going more than Putin did, though the then-Russian Prime Minister paradoxically gained domestically by returning to anti-American slogans courting his traditionalist base. By this logic, a second Obama term would seem to be the Kremlin’s preferred option — especially since, to Putin, Obama is by now almost a hostage to his own reset policy, part of which is a tendency to avoid upsetting the Kremlin.

Yet the Russian reality is more complicated. The fact that Putin is experiencing growing problems and fading popularity at home has forced the Kremlin to turn to repressive mechanisms in order to survive. This, in turn, demands justification, which requires a search for an enemy. The threat for the Kremlin (real or imagined) can’t come from inside or from a normal country or neighbor; that would be humiliating for an elite that tries so hard to look macho! To look convincing, the threat has to come from a great power that represents an alien civilization: America. This is a return to the Soviet tradition of the search for an enemy to perpetuate the system. In this situation, the Kremlin does not need the leader of the reset anymore. Instead, the Russian ruling team will be tempted to turn Russia into a “besieged fortress” that will pursue a different type of relationship with America—namely, a more assertive one. And Obama is less likely to offer justification for this type of relationship. With his criticism of Putin and the reset, Romney may actually fit better in the new Kremlin’s domestic agenda.

This leads us to conclude the Kremlin could be happy with either a second Obama term or a first Romney one: with Obama looking the other way while the Kremlin cracks down at home, or with Romney giving the Kremlin pretexts to hold up the U.S. as a threat. In both cases, the Kremlin believes that America needs Russia more than Russia needs America. As one of the leading Kremlin foreign policy experts and the Duma official Alexei Pushkov said, “ […] after admission to WTO, this country [Russia] does not need the support of the White House very much while Americans need Moscow's support on Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and on nuclear nonproliferation." 

Among the Russian opposition, there tends to be a critical view of Obama’s reset policy for its downplaying of human rights concerns and legitimization of Putin’s rule. For now, based on Romney’s early rhetoric, the opposition hopes that the Republican candidate, should he win, would adopt a tougher line toward Putin’s Kremlin. See the GOP platform again for evidence of this:

"[W]e urge the leaders of their government to reconsider the path they have been following: suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society; unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Georgia, alignment with tyrants in the Middle East; and bullying their neighbors while protecting the last Stalinist regime in Belarus. The Russian people deserve better, as we look to their full participation in the ranks of modern democracies."

While heartened by the Republican endorsement of the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which the Obama Administration has opposed, Russia’s opposition is mindful that campaign rhetoric doesn’t always translate into actual policy after the ballots have been cast and counted. Regardless of who wins the election, passage of the Magnitsky legislation would send a strong signal of support to Russian liberals that America does care about the values and principles it preaches.

At the end of the day, regardless of who wins the election, U.S.-Russian relations will be much cooler and figure less prominently in U.S. foreign policy calculations. Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov offered this insight: “The moment when the interests of two sides coincided has passed. […] Contrary to anticipations, the second Obama presidency could become a serious test for both — Russia and America.”

*[Read the full text of the article in The American Interest] The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy. 

 

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