Why Russians Prefer Obama -- But Just Barely

Letter From Moscow

Obama and Medvedev matryoshka doll. (Ingo Bernhardt / flickr)

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.

Meanwhile, most ordinary Russians have little to say about Obama. Unlike the public of western Europe, Russians were not touched by Obamamania in 2008. Obama came to Moscow once, in 2009, and the visit was anything but groundbreaking. Compared with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama appeared cool-headed and distant. Those who went into the street to protest last December never looked to him as a hero or protector, giving the lie to the Kremlin's accusations that they were in the pay of the U.S. government.   

By contrast, the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, made himself famous for calling Russia the United States' "geopolitical foe number one." He has also made sure to sound tough whenever referring to Putin. And he blasted the reset, claiming that it gave too much to Moscow.

Ironically, far from giving him credibility in the eyes of the public, Romney's rhetoric has helped Russians portray him as a cold warrior. Even those opposed to Putin aren't looking for an ally in the United States. Meanwhile, Romney's criticism does not necessarily hurt his standing in the eyes of the Kremlin. Toughness in the White House has a certain value for Russia's leaders, who can use it to rally Russians around the flag and to present Putin as the country's staunchest defender against U.S. encroachments. 

At any rate, the inclusion in Romney's portfolio of some assets of Russian state-owned companies might speak louder to the Kremlin than his "geopolitical foe" comment. But therein lies Romney's biggest limitation -- he is an unknown quantity for both the Kremlin and the public. Some pundits in Moscow have expressed fears that, if elected, Romney would bring neoconservatives, who are typically very anti-Russian, into his administration. Others have reasoned that, if Romney's past record is any guide, he would be more likely to gravitate to the center and seek compromise. Until he is in office, however, speculation is little more than Kremlinology.

The other side of the equation after this November will be how the Russian president approaches whomever holds the White House. Reacting to Medvedev's failure to dissuade Obama from pursing plans for a NATO missile defense shield, Putin has switched from placing arms control at the center of the relationship to focusing on trade and investment. He has personally courted U.S. and other Western CEOs, trying to lure them with lucrative deals with Rosneft and Gazprom, two state-owned energy companies. His aim is to stabilize U.S.-Russia relations by adding mutual business interests to the mix.

Putin has repeatedly and publicly complained -- for example, after the G-20 meeting last June in Mexico and after the APEC summit in Vladivostok that he hosted in September -- that U.S.-Russian trade was a puny $30 billion in 2011, compared with $72 billion with Germany and $83 billion with China. Having helped Russia finally join the WTO this year, the United States now needs to make sure its companies reap the benefits. Making this happen will call require a permanently normalized trade relationship between the two countries -- something Putin has also been seeking.

At the same time, however, Putin has been promoting a policy of "sovereignization," doing away with vestiges of Russia's "unequal treatment" by the West in the Yeltsin era. Thus, he discontinued several U.S. aid programs started in the early 1990s, including USAID projects and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which was developed to help Russia secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states. Russia certainly has the money to finance nuclear arms liquidation and aid programs itself, but the details of how and whether it plans to do so are not available. Meanwhile, Russian NGOs that use foreign funds are now obligated to register as foreign agents. The Kremlin has also insisted that Russian officials withdraw any assets abroad and park their wealth at home. By hermetically sealing Russia off, Putin hopes to insulate its domestic politics from outside pressure. The next president of the United States will be able to do little about these internal Russian developments apart from expanding trading and humanitarian ties will indirectly accelerate Russian economic and social modernization.

The fact that the Kremlin and the Russian public are watching the U.S. election without much passion is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a sign that the countries are no longer enemies but are not great friends. It is not too early to begin thinking seriously about whether continuing in the same path will be in U.S. national interests.

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