Why Russians Prefer Obama -- But Just Barely

Letter From Moscow

Russians are watching this year's U.S. presidential election rather calmly. From those who follow international affairs for fun to those who create Moscow's foreign policy, most Russians agree -- although not enthusiastically -- that Barack Obama is the better choice.

The Kremlin's preference for Obama comes from several sources. He attempted to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations at a time when they were nearly unworkable, thanks to the 2008 South Ossetia War. Obama's critics at home say that the reset was a failure, but it has had some positive effects for Russia. Obama avoided the constant provocation of the George W. Bush era and stayed well away from the former Soviet space, distancing himself from Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia and accepting Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's withdrawal of Ukraine's application from NATO without much comment.

More important, Obama took Moscow seriously enough to negotiate a bilateral arms treaty with it, and to institutionalize bilateral bureaucratic talks. He also eased Russia's long-delayed entry into the WTO and refused to personally responde to the Kremlin's accusations that the United States helped finance last winter's anti-Putin protests. Instead, he left it up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make critical comments about the Russian domestic situation. That made her a target for the Kremlin but got him off the hook.

For now, the major points of contention between Moscow and Washington in the former U.S.S.R. is Manas, the transit hub used by the U.S. military in Kyrgyzstan, and U.S. efforts to secure other facilities in Central Asia as the 2014 deadline in Afghanistan draws near. As far as Syria is concerned, despite all Obama's differences with Putin, the Obama administration has not tried to go around the UN Security Council to intervene militarily in the country. Since it is likely that a Romney administration would pursue the same general policies in both areas, Russian President Vladimir Putin might find Obama the safer choice.

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