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Considering Russia in the Voting Booth

NEE’s editor-in-chief Adam Reichardt looks at the role relations with Putin’s Russia can play in the 2012 US presidential elections.

July 9, 2012 - Adam Reichardt - Articles and Commentary



During the 2012 American election cycle, it is clear that most American voters are paying attention to one thing: the economy. With unemployment in the United States sitting tightly at 8.1 per cent and many feeling the strain of a slow GDP growth rate under two per cent in the first quarter of this year, it is no wonder. Voters often vote based on their personal situation, no matter if the president is to blame or not.

“All signs now suggest that the 2012 US elections will revolve largely around domestic policy, especially the economy, unemployment, the government budget deficit, and debt. Few expect or believe that foreign affairs will figure prominently in the decisions that most voters make,” Ross Wilson a former Ambassador and expert at the Atlantic Council of the United States affirmed to me.

Obviously, American voters have many serious issues to worry about when entering the voting booth come November 6th 2012. But one area of critical importance to the future of America and its role in the world, which is probably not on the top of most voters’ minds, is foreign policy – and more specifically relations with Russia.

Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012 as president of Russia. It is his third term and he has already proved that the strong image of Putin is no more diminished now than it was in his earlier years as president. He has shown little regard for the growing opposition movement internally, despite massive protests, and his first foreign policy act was to snub the G8 meeting in May in Washington.

These signals are clear: Putin wants to be seen as a distinct leader in the world. This attitude was made even clearer when we saw the pictures that emerged from the G20 meetings in Mexico between Presidents Putin and Obama. Putin’s face cold, collected (like most of his images in public) and not showing any friendliness towards President Barack Obama. Putin’s goal is to lead a strong Russia, strongly.

And while Putin may not be the most popular abroad or at home, the United States and its allies are going to have to continue to engage with Russia on a whole range of issues in the world today, from Syria to energy to the global economy.

“Reset” versus “Not Enemies”

How should American’s understand Russia? This is not an easy question to answer. It is a large, dynamic country that is, according to some, on the verge of major change. It is a country with a rich culture, vast natural and energy resources, and looking for new ways to reinvent itself as a regional power.

Unfortunately, in the 21st century, however, the average American gives much less thought about Russia’s role in the world today than they had during the Cold War. As Kevin Rothrock, a Russian expert and blogger at A Good Treaty put it to me: “Russia is a non-issue for most Americans. Most of us have only a superficial knowledge of the most basic stereotypes (alcoholism, wilderness, corruption), and that ignorance feeds a disinterest that’s hard to exaggerate.”

Some of this has to do with the way Russia is portrayed in the American media. “When Russia-related stories splash into the headlines of our media, it’s almost always something to do with the tyranny of Vladimir Putin, the belligerence of the Russian military, or the revolutionary hope of the political opposition. This coverage is partly determined by the biases of American correspondents in Moscow, but it’s also framed by news-consumers’ assumptions about Russia and Russians, as well as a Cold-War-inspired, residual fear of the Kremlin,” Rothrock added.

And for those who are paying attention to Russia, they are focused on specific issues uninteresting to the average American voter. “The Russia-related debates now ongoing in Washington are mainly limited to specialists and wonks,” Rothrock said. “The Magnitsky List, debates about preferred trade status and adoption regulations – these aren’t issues that interest the voting public.”

Obama’s reset policy, dealing with Iran and the conflict in Syria has brought some attention to the relationship between the US and Russia, but most media coverage on the candidates’ position on Russia has not allowed the average American voter to build a well-informed opinion which contrasts the two candidates on Russia.  

Obama’s policy towards Russia is easier to gauge, since there has already been four years of his administration tojudge. As Ross Wilson noted, “President Obama has a four-year record with Russia to defend – i.e., the reset policy and the benefits that the administration will argue have accrued from its more pragmatic and less confrontational approach to relations with Moscow.”

President Obama’s policy of reset was indeed a glimmer of hope for US-Russian relations at the start of 2009, but that glimmer has all but faded. The case of Syria and Iran are clear examples of the real challenges America still faces when engaging with Russia on global issues and the Obama campaign will most likely avoid referring to the “reset” by name.

“Though the Administration will not use the expression ‘reset’ too much, it can be expected to continue to emphasize pragmatism and to implement that line if the president is re-elected,” Wilson believes.

Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, has been less clear about his position on relations with Russia, but what is revealed in recent statements and on his website shows a more controversial approach. Most telling were the comments Romney made in June 2012. On Russia, Romney has stated: “The nation which consistently opposes our actions at the United Nations has been Russia. We’re of course not enemies. We’re not fighting each other. There’s no Cold War, but Russia is a geopolitical foe in that regard.”

The Romney campaign’s web site reveals several areas of focus for Russia, none of them discuss active engagement, but rather focus on taking tougher stances with Russia, including renegotiating the New Start Treaty, decreasing Europe’s energy reliance on Russia, building stronger relations with Central Asia, as well as supporting Russia’s civil society. 

Surprisingly, the last one, engaging Russia’s civil society, could be the most controversial. The Romney campaign web site provides a strongly worded statement that “A Romney administration will be forthright in confronting the Russian government over its authoritarian practices.” Indeed, America needs a strong leader to stand up for its position in the world, however confronting Russia on internal issues may not only offend most Russians, even in the opposition – it could hurt the entire goal of this platform.

Having the American government play an active role in the changes happening inside Russia could be detrimental to US-Russian relations. Many Russians believe that changes within their own country should be driven from the Russian society. Any outside interference would hurt the legitimacy of the Russian opposition and cause the Russian elite to become even more suspicious, and perhaps even hostile, to the intentions of American foreign policy.

Russians and the US election

A public opinion poll released by the Pew Research Center for 2012 showed that 52 per cent of Russian respondents said they maintained a “favourable” view of the United States (this is in contrast to the 37 per cent of Americans who have the same view of Russia). According to Dmitry Babich, a Russian political analyst for the Voice of Russia radio station and a contributor to the stated-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Russian attitudes toward America, however, are changing.  

“It used to be a mixture of inferiority complex and sincere admiration, and so it stays with many people who did not catch up with the realities of modern times,” Babich said to me. “The more astute observers (still a minority) note that the US more and more often makes mistakes. [America] is no longer a real ‘lord protector’ of democracy as it truly was in the 1930s to the 1980s.”

The Russian’s are carefully watching the elections in the US. All major news organizations in Russia provide coverage of the American elections and the candidates and many Russians wonder what the future of Russian-American relations will be, especially after the scandal that erupted with US Ambassador Michael McFaul as well as the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Still, most Russian’s believe that Obama is a pragmatist who is able to find common ground with Russia to work on global issues. As Rothrock said to me, “Russians widely believe that Obama is the better candidate for their national interests. This was true in 2008, and it is again now. I think this is due more to bellicose language from Republican candidates than anything Obama himself has ever done.”

Babich agrees. When asked who the Russian elite prefer in the White House, Babich responded, “Certainly, Obama. It is hard to prefer someone in the White House who calls Russia ‘a number one geopolitical foe of the US,’ and that is what Romney said. We Russians tend to be masochists sometimes, but not to the extent of wishing to have an enemy in the Oval office in the United States.” With the Russian preference toward Obama, some in American politics may see this as a negative. Others may believe that a Russia more willing to work with Obama over Romney could be positive for US-Russian relations.

But there are some in Russia who would rather have the Republican in the White House. As Babich sees it, this group is not a part of mainstream Russia. “A part of the radical opposition in Russia openly prefers Romney… this part of the opposition, however, is only further isolating itself from all the realistically thinking people in the country,” Babich said.

Paying Attention

Nevertheless, one important factor to consider for the American voter in November is the fact that Russia is changing. Its economy has somewhat stabilized and continues to grow – and Putin has set an ambitious goal of doubling the Russian economy in this decade, aiming to challenge American (and Chinese) economic hegemony in the coming years. Russia’s geopolitical position has also strengthened considerably and American foreign policy now needs to consider Russian influence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Alongside China, Russia is also finding ways to grow its influence globally to become an alternative to the traditional “West”.

But most of all, the Russian people are changing. Many are beginning to see that their managed system may not be the most preferred form of rule in Russia. The protests that have taken place over the last year are a blow to the Putin power system. While the regime’s reaction has not been the most optimistic, it is clear that they will be forced to implement some incremental social and political changes or face a more tragic fate. Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently predicted that “by censoring the media, discrediting the moderate opposition and provoking popular discontent, Putin is playing with fire. It is impossible to predict when Russia will detonate, but the system’s undeniable fissures are growing.”

American voters need to start paying attention to this side of the world. They should not only ask themselves which candidate is best for domestic policy, but consider foreign policy (especially toward Russia) in the voting booth.

Who will be strong enough to engage with Putin’s Russia while at the same time dynamic enough to deal with a changing Russia? 

Adam Reichardt is the Managing Editor of New Eastern Europe – an English-language quarterly news journal devoted to Central and Eastern European Affairs based in Krakow Poland. 

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