need for update of Russia-US political agenda

Text of report by Russian Gazeta.ru news website, often critical of the government, on 29 March

[Article by Fedor Lukyanov: "Promotion to Enemy"]

A switched-on microphone that picked up a fragment of a conversation between Barack Obama and Dmitriy Medvedev has done something almost impossible. Russia has suddenly turned into a US election campaign theme. This last happened almost four years ago for a much more serious reason – because of the Russia-Georgia war. And even then it only lasted a couple of weeks: The world financial crisis that exploded in September 2008 eclipsed everything else. The current fuss is essentially not about Russia but about Obama. The president tripped up, and it would have been a sin for his Republican rivals not to exploit the fact. Which is what they have started doing, and Mitt Romney’s statement will of course not be the end of it.

As for Russia, we should cordially and sincerely thank the main Republican candidate. Such a high assessment of our country’s potential has not been heard from the United States in more than two decades.

The main geopolitical enemy of the only superpower, which in terms of aggregate might is superior to virtually all the others put together, cannot be just anybody. So it transpires that Russia is the number two power, as in the good old days. It would be nice to believe that the former governor of Massachusetts actually believes this. Because the problem with his fellow party members from the previous administration – Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and even George Bush himself – was the opposite. They could not comprehend why indeed attention should be paid to a failed country whose chances of restoring its influence on a long-term basis were slight. And especially why it should be taken into account. It took Moscow and Vladimir Putin personally significant effort to convince our Washington interlocutors that they were underestimating their former rival. Nevertheless in the event of a Republican victory in the next elections (which currently looks unlikely) a lack of interest in Russia would be a much more likely prospect than a surfeit.

If you consider that Romney’s invective is not an instrument in the election struggle but a reflection of his views, this of course produces a depressing impression. Not because of his hostility towards Moscow – many different explanations can be found for that – but because of the inappropriateness of his picture of the world.

America is a facing a major challenge: The international system that is taking shape is completely different from the one that was envisioned when the United States proceeded from a presumption of its sole leadership. The United States needs to rethink its foreign policy priorities and methods, which Obama is timidly attempting to do. But the political establishment and the state bureaucracy operate by inertia, preferring to replicate traditional approaches. Especially since an impulse that was generated by the victory in the Cold War and which feeds a sense of great historic rightness persists, albeit in a more muted form.

In the coming years America will have to answer many complex questions. These include formulating a balanced policy towards China and the entire Asia-Pacific region, formulating objectives and tasks in a changing Near East, choosing priorities in the strategic and defence sphere, formulating a plan of action to resolve global problems that the United States, as a leadership contender, has no right to ignore, and so forth. Russia is capable of making a contribution in some areas, may be an obstacle in others, and is not a factor at all in some issues. It is definitely not looking for a systemic confrontation, has neither the forces, nor the resources, nor wish for such, and is minded to safeguard its own interests in an increasingly clearly delineated area. That is, its global ambitions are evaporating quite rapidly. In such a situation, to declare Russia to be geopolitical enemy number one is tantamount to looking for a purse not where you lost it but under a lamppost, where the light is brighter.

The Republican campaign, in which it is already gen erally clear who will win (the above-mentioned Mitt Romney), is looking extremely lackluster. A downbeat mood can be observed in the Republican Party, since many people do not believe that the favourite, if he wins the nomination, has a chance of beating Obama. And this despite the fact that the incumbent president himself is in by no means the strongest position: Many supporters have become deeply disillusioned with him and, if the Republicans had a serious candidate, reelection would be a big problem for Barack Obama.

Foreign policy is traditionally not one of the main election campaign themes. And to the extent to which Republican contenders are touching on it, the emerging picture is of a highly mediocre cliche-ridden approach based more on ideological dogmas than consideration of the actual situation.

The exception is Ron Paul, who upholds an ideal that is close to isolationist and urges nonintervention in other countries’ affairs. But this is precisely why he is unelectable, although in the primaries he obtains more support than a politician with knowingly marginal views can count on.

But if we imagine a Republican success anyway, his foreign policy – which would possibly repeat the rhetoric of Bush-era neocons – would hardly be able in practice to replicate the Bush level of expansionism. Financial restrictions associated with the need to reduce the extent of the state debt are inevitable. Inflaming a large part of the world with pro-democratic interventionism will not work – the last wave has still not been forgotten. Plus the "Arab Spring" will continue to reshape the geopolitical landscape.

A high degree of indifference towards Russia would be likely. Like Bush, the next American president would see no need for dialogue with Moscow on strategic issues and stop trying to sign anything on arms limitation or missile defence.

In a certain sense this would be even more convenient for Russia. It would not be necessary to rack our brains over what pretext to use to reject further reductions in the nuclear forces, particularly tactical nuclear forces, in which Moscow currently has no interest. And it would be possible to get down to creating the actual asymmetric response to the missile defence system with which the Kremlin and the Russian White House have been constantly frightening United States.

In this respect Obama will cause more difficulties. On the whole he has a pretty good understanding of the changes in the world. And he has already warned that, in the event of a second term, he intends to continue with the above-mentioned subjects, and Russia will have to formulate responses. Strange as it may seem, some kind of compromise on missile defence – at the level of specially developed monitoring and verification mechanisms, for example – appears more likely than further progress on disarmament. It is just that third countries are also present in the background here: China, as always, which is systematically hauling itself up in terms of military-technological improvement.

The Russian-American agenda requires no less a radical update than the whole of US foreign policy. A second reset on the same bases – Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament – will not happen; all these subjects are waning, although some of them could still "go out with a bang."

The promotion of democracy will most likely remain basically at the rhetorical level. But a new list of pressing problems has not yet emerged. And whereas it is still possible to win a couple of pre-election points (or rather, take them away from Obama) by talking about Russia as the "number one geopolitical enemy," subsequently it will not help at all.

Source: Gazeta.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 29 Mar 12

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