As the U.S. presidential campaign heats up ahead of the November election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is continuing his tough talk on Russia, blasting President Barack Obama’s ‘flexibility’ on Moscow in a move Russian analysts have called an election ploy that showcases his lack of foreign policy experience.
Any concrete Russia policy, they say, is still far off.
“Everything he’s saying now is, first of all, steeped in stereotypes, and secondly, follows the logic of the election campaign, in which he tries to address as sharply as possible everything Obama has done,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs.
In an appeal to his conservative support base, the former Massachusetts governor has staunchly criticized Obama’s foreign policy by lambasting what he calls the president's international “apology tour” and attacking his perceived soft stance on traditional U.S. rivals.
According to Romney, the president’s U.S.-Russian “reset” agenda, a brainchild of current U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and introduced in 2009, has largely been a concession to Russia that signals U.S. weakness in front of its Cold War nemesis.
The defining moment came last March, when Romney told CNN that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” sending pundits and Russia-watchers alike into a frenzy of chatter, analysis and, in many cases, sheer bewilderment.
“[Russia] fights every cause for the world's worst actors,” he said in the interview. “The idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.”
The comments were a swipe at Obama’s open-mic gaffe earlier this year, when he asked then-President Dmitry Medvedev for leniency on the perennially troublesome issue of missile defense, citing a difficult election season.
The famously photogenic Mormon candidate has since stuck closely to the tone he set during that interview, regularly demanding that the United States take a tougher stance against the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin personally.
“Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone,” Romney said at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, last week after formally accepting his party’s nomination.
But while other experts agree that the Republican candidate’s Russia rhetoric is mostly heated election talk, they also see truth behind the stereotypes that pitch the United States against Russia as traditional rivals.
“Let’s be realistic: Russia is the only nation in the world that can destroy the United States,” said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute of the USA and Canada at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Just for this simple fact, Russia is a foe.”
He added that Romney is “looking for an enemy” against which he can consolidate hawkish Republican support.
On the more peculiar side, the Romney camp has not once – but several times – referred to Russia as the “Soviet Union” in gaffes that only played into criticism of the candidate. On two separate occasions, his advisors have warned of the “Soviet” threat in the Arctic and over Syria. Even Romney himself let one slip before quickly correcting himself.
But jokes aside, Romney’s abundant criticism of Obama’s Russia policy strikes a particularly strange note against the backdrop of a relative improvement in U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. Emerging from its lowest point since the Soviet collapse, the relationship during Obama’s election had been marred by sharp criticism and suspicion of U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Moscow’s backyard.
Obama’s policy sought to change the status-quo by opening up a dialogue, signing the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, and kick-starting cooperation in Afghanistan, among other accomplishments.
But relations have also taken several high-profile hits recently, such as when Putin accused the United States of sponsoring the anti-Kremlin opposition rallies that erupted after last December’s parliamentary elections. The two countries have also locked horns on Syria, with U.S. officials accusing Russia of aiding and abetting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Kremenyuk notes it’s difficult to ascertain just how successful the U.S.-Russian “reset” truly was – and whether that trend could follow Romney to the White House.
“Anyone can understand whatever he wants about the ‘reset’: an improvement? To some extent we improved [our relations],” he said. “But does that mean we have now finally identified a new agenda, what both nations want from each other? No.”
For his part, Putin said Wednesday he is ready to work with the next U.S. president regardless of who wins in the November election, so long as that person is ready to work with Russia
“Whoever the American public elects, we will work with them,” he told RT TV in an interview on Wednesday. “But we will work together only as effectively as our partners want to.”
Lukyanov, of Russia in Global Affairs, said the Kremlin has largely taken Romney’s sharp comments with a grain of salt.
“When Romney repeatedly said that Russia is the main geopolitical foe of the United States, it was actually perceived with irony, because no one – including the most hawkish Americans – believes that,” he said. “This is seen as a sign of his inexperience and very little interest [in Russia].”