Obama or Romney? The Russian view

Russia may not figure much in American elections, but President Putin finds Mitt Romney’s description of that country as ‘geopolitical foe number one’ useful in his management of domestic politics. He could probably work with either candidate, but what sort of relationship with Russia might either of them pursue?

On the face of it, the contrast could not be starker. On the one hand there is a President who, right from the beginning of his term, moved to ‘reset’ US-Russian relations, which had reached a dangerous point under his predecessor. On the other hand there is a challenger who, during the campaign, famously proclaimed Russia to be the US’s ‘geopolitical foe number one’. Given this, it is hardly surprising that official Moscow would prefer Barack Obama to win in November. However, things are not as simple and clear-cut as they might seem.

Obama, a predictable partner

True, Barack Obama has been, generally, a predictable partner to the Kremlin. His foreign policy focus has been far away from the area of Moscow’s prime geopolitical interest, the post-Soviet space.

‘True, Barack Obama has been, generally, a predictable partner to the Kremlin. His foreign policy focus has been far away from the area of Moscow’s prime geopolitical interest, the post-Soviet space.’

The New START Treaty restored Russia’s status as a privileged partner of the United States in the area of strategic stability – still the quintessence of international relations, in the Kremlin’s view. The Obama Administration helped Russia to conclude its 19-year trek toward WTO membership. Obama even indicated that, if reelected, he might be flexible on the main sticking point of the relationship, the issue of missile defence in Europe.

Equally true, there are people in Moscow who are worried that a Romney victory would bring back the neoconservatives with their dismissive and hostile attitude to Russia. There are concerns that the US-Russian arms control process, revived by Obama after a decade of neglect, would once more be suspended indefinitely if Romney were to win. A Republican administration, it is feared, would be totally inflexible on the issue of missile defence in Europe, ignoring Moscow’s security concerns, and may resume efforts to bring Georgia into NATO – now that the Mikheil Saakashvili era may be drawing to a close.

Yet other things are true as well. For all his profession of future flexibility toward Moscow, Barack Obama may be in fact quite constrained in handling the missile defence issue in Washington. President Putin evidently believes that it is Mitt Romney, rather than Barack Obama, who is more in tune with the ‘real’ views of Russia within the US political class, as well as its foreign policy, military, and intelligence establishments. On the other hand, Romney’s profession of ‘toughness’ toward Moscow has not prevented him from acquiring equity in Russian government-owned companies.

‘… there are people in Moscow who are worried that a Romney victory would bring back the neoconservatives with their dismissive and hostile attitude to Russia.’

A permanent fixture in Russian domestic politics…

While Russia is not much of a factor in US elections, the United States has become a permanent fixture in Russian domestic politics. There, Obama’s ‘reset’ policy was seriously compromised, in the Kremlin’s view, by US government support for Russian activists monitoring the Duma elections last December. This de facto turned Hillary Clinton’s State Department into a sponsor of anti-Putin opposition, and, for quite some time, made life hard for Mike McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, who, ironically, was the principal architect of the reset policy.

By contrast, Romney’s Cold War-style rhetoric fits nicely into Vladimir Putin’s worldview in which the United States features as Russia’s geopolitical foe number one. It helps Putin to rally his supporters around the Russian flag and portray the Kremlin opponents as ‘foreign agents’.

‘…the bottom line is that, on balance, Moscow would probably prefer Obama, but should Romney win, this will not be seen as a disaster.’ 

In more practical terms, Putin and others around him see Romney as essentially pragmatic, likely to avoid political extremes and capable of doing business together with Russia where the two sides’ interests meet – as they do, up to a point, on Afghanistan.

Thus, the bottom line is that, on balance, Moscow would probably prefer Obama, but should Romney win, this will not be seen as a disaster. The issue is what sort of a relationship with the United States would Russia seek after the elections?