2012 US presidential campaign implications for Russia eyed

Text of report by anti-Kremlin Russian current affairs website Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal on 9 January

[Report by Masha Lipman, under the rubric "Results of the Year": "The Reset in 2011"]

The top state officials of Russia always have anti-Western vocabulary in readiness, but by the end of the year, the need for it had clearly risen. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov extracted the ringing Soviet turn of speech "wholesale disparagement" from his reserves of rhetoric. In the state propaganda of the USSR, these words were mostly used to label the activities of dissidents, but the Russian minister used it to condemn his American colleague – for a critical response to the parliamentary elections. Putin placed responsibility on that same Hillary Clinton for the sudden outbreak of antigovernment activism among Russia’s citizens. At the end of November, Medvedev broke out into military threats: he declared that in order to forestall American missile defence in Europe, he is ready to deploy our missiles on the western and southern frontiers of Russia and even to withdraw from the recently concluded Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

The angry and menacing foreign policy rhetoric differs a great deal from the tone that Russia and America held to for a while after the declaration of the reset policy. But that does not mean that the foreign policy itself has in fact changed just as drastically. In Russia as, by the way, in other countries too, tough words calculated for publicity often differ from the foreign policy decisions: someone can be severely condemned and all the same joint business can continue to be done, if that is to the benefit of both. A graphic example was the position chosen by Russia in March 2011 when it abstained from voting on the draft resolution on Libya. Russian restraint in fact allowed the Western coalition to begin bombing Libyan territory, and the subsequent fierce condemnation of this operation did not change the matter. Unlike the war in Iraq, which began despite Russia’s categorical refusal to support military actions against Saddam Husayn, generally speaking Russia gave its sanction, although extremely reluctantly, to the actions against Qadhafi.

The foreign policy decisions of Russia, unlike its rhetoric, demonstrate an interest in limited cooperation – and certainly not a desire for isolationism. Confirmation of that is seen in the well known achievements of the "reset": the conclusion of the START III Treaty, some rapprochement in the Russian position on Iran towards the American, and the offer of Russian territory for delivering freight destined for American troops in Afghanistan. Russia’s joining the WTO as well as various steps, some public and some not so very much, focused on smoothing over the negative ideas of Russia attest to continuing interest in cooperation. Here we also have the Valday Club, where Putin personally conducts sessions to give prominent Western specialists on Russia a rose-coloured view and [to make] informal contacts. Neither the one side nor the other, needless to say, is publicizing such delicate diplomacy, but, for example, the rumour that was spread at the end of the year that Russia and the United States were secretly discussing the political future of Syria and Russia’s possible participation in Bashar Assad’s fate seems quite plausible (although Russia denied this rumour). Such consultations – if you assume that they were in fact conducted – have a rational basis (and one common to both countries): neither the United States nor Russia would like Islamists to come to power in Syria to replace Assad.

Although in itself the tough rhetoric is not evidence of a fundamental revision of relations with the United States, all the same, in 2011 the "reset" stalled in an obvious way. The short list (START-Iran-Afghanistan) had exhausted itself and new topics did not appear. Because of that the old topic of the "confrontation of the nuclear superpowers," which long ago lost its at one time existential sense, still occupies the central place in Russian-American relations. At the same time, for Russia America remains the chief starting point and the focus of foreign policy ambitions and frustrations; both in the official discourse, and to a considerable extent in public consciousness, there is the fear that the United States is trying to weaken and harm Russia. The idea that America is obsessed with Russia to no less of an extent than we are with it is mixed up with hurt feelings that in reality the Americans do not have any great interest in us. That is the reason that – along with the perfectly rational decisions – Russia is constantly taking irrational steps. One of them was Medvedev’s statement made in November: he demanded legal guarantees from the United States that American missile defence in Europe would not be aimed against Russia. Such legal obligations from the United States are absolutely out of the question: it is contradicted by the status of America as the strongest military power in the world and the corresponding foreign policy precepts that are shared both by American politicians and by American citizens, regardless of their political preferences.

Russia occupies quite a modest place in the American system of foreign policy priorities. Having ceased to be a serious threat, it has not become a reliable partner. All the same, despite the fact that the "reset" has in part exhausted itself, at the end of 2011, interest in Russia rose somewhat, and in the next year this tendency to all appearances will continue. Actually Russian events are not the main thing here – although the return of Putin that has been announced and his reduced legitimacy, the parliamentary elections, and mass street protests, needless to say, attract interest. The main factor is the election campaign that has begun in the United States.

Since the time of Obama’s election, the brutal battle between the Republicans and the Democrats has not ceased for even a moment; and on the threshold of the presidential election in November 2012, the Republicans have a firm intention not to allow Obama to be elected to a second term. Their main obstacle is the rather weak group of candidates, while the main advantage is the problems with the economy, and especially the high level of unemployment.

The main substance of the current presidential campaign will be specifically the economy. Foreign policy, as almost always in fact happens, will remain secondary; in addition today it is not the best subject for criticism of the Obama administration. In terms of the battle against terrorism, Obama, from the Americans’ point of view, has such an unquestionable achievement as the killing of Bin Ladin. What is more, he fulfilled the promise he gave to his fellow citizens and ended the war in Iraq, and despite the fears this did not lead to a civil war. He took up the problem of Afghanistan in earnest and doubled the number of American troops on Afghan territory.

From the point of view of Obama himself and his supporters, they have serious successes in the "Russian" direction (especially if you compare Obama with his Republic predecessor). The same topics go on and on: the conclusion of the START Treaty, and Russia’s greater amenability on the issue of sanctions against Iran and on the delivery of freight to Afghanistan (because US relations with Pakistan have gotten worse, the so-called northern – that is to say, Russian – route for delivery is especially important to the United States).

But all the same the topic of Russia is a convenient method for subjecting the Democratic president to the criticism traditional for the Republicans, for excessively soft and naive foreign policy and insufficient concern for American security. So even if the voters, with rare exceptions, have little interest in the topic of Russia, the Republicans use it to influence the more conservative part of the electorate and especially independent voters more strongly against Obama. There are accusations in play that Obama is not reflecting Russia’s attempts to "breach" the American missile defence in Europe – although, in Medvedev’s opinion, the actions of the American administration, on the contrary, represent a direct threat to Russia’s security. And needless to say, the Republicans rebuke Obama for not supporting the Russian people in the fight against the Putin regime. The last point works well in those states where a large number of natives of Eastern Europe live. Among them are notably Florida and Pennsylvania, which in recent years have inevitably proven to be among the swing states [term in English], in other words, the wavering states where each "swing" vote is exceptionally valuable – it is specifically in those states where in the end the outcome of the American presidential election is determined.

The American campaign will to a significant extent determine the tone of Russian-American relations in the coming year, whereas their real substance for now remains rather empty. It is unlikely that we will become irreconcilable enemies, but neither should we expect serious cooperation with America as long as Russia’s leaderships sees its American "partner" more as a foe. And for now, while readily expressing grief over the death of the North Korean dictator, the country’s rulers cannot force themselves to speak words of condolence in connection with the death of Vaclav Havel, who back when he was still alive became a symbol of democratic values for the West.

Source: Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal website, Moscow, in Russian 9 Jan 12

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