It was a whisper heard round the world.
“After my election, I have more flexibility,” U.S. President Barack Obama told his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, earlier this year, leaning over and punctuating the remark with a reassuring pat on his fellow leader’s arm.
The message from Obama was in reference to the dispute over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe, and Medvedev promised to relay it to his mentor, Vladimir Putin, who had just been elected Russia’s new president.
Obama, however, had already saved Medvedev the trip. Seemingly unbeknownst to the two leaders, a microphone picked up the exchange, which Putin could watch from the comfort of his living room on virtually every major international news network.
The U.S. presidential election is two months away, but Russia’s leadership is skeptical that an Obama victory would precipitate serious progress in negotiations over the planned missile shield.
The Obama administration and NATO say the shield would protect Europe against Iranian missiles, but Russia says it could spark a Cold War - style arms race.
“My feeling is that [Obama] is a sincere man and that he sincerely wants to implement positive change,” Putin told the state-owned television news network RT in an interview earlier this week.
“But can he do it, will they let him do it? I mean that there is also the military lobby, and the Department of State, which is quite conservative,” said Putin.
The Democratic Party’s 2012 platform released this week said Obama will move forward with the European missile defense shield, but it added, “we believe the United States and Russia can cooperate on missile defense.”
Republican challenger Mitt Romney has accused Obama of taking a soft approach to ties with Russia, which he has described as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
In his nomination acceptance speech Thursday night, Obama used Romney’s confrontational rhetoric to portray him as a foreign policy novice.
“After all, you don’t call Russia our number one enemy - not al-Qaeda, Russia - unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp,” Obama told the crowd at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina.
In his interview with RT, Putin said a missile deal is more likely with Obama, while questioning what Romney might do with the missiles.
“What happens if Mr. Romney, who believes us to be America’s number one foe, is elected as president of the United States? In that case, the missile defense system will definitely be used against Russia,” Putin said.
Should Obama win the White House in the November 6 election, both sides will maintain the rhetoric of the U.S. President’s policy to “reset” the fractured bilateral relations he inherited from George W. Bush, said Alexei Pushkov, head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
“In reality, relations will be more complicated and not nearly as warm as they were portrayed three years ago when the ‘reset’ policy was announced,” Pushkov said in a telephone interview.
Russian officials see Obama’s “reset” policy as more of a course correction that has already been accomplished, said Angela Stent director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
“The question from the Russian side is: Where do we go from here?” Stent said. “I think at the moment the perception is still - at least as far as Afghanistan and some other issues are concerned - that the U.S. needs Russian cooperation more than vice versa.”
This is especially evident in the ongoing civil war in Syria, where Russia has stubbornly resisted Western overtures to intervene in the violence, Stent added.
“Even if it’s a second Obama administration, it’s going to be tougher than it was in a first Obama administration, just because the international situation has changed” she said.
U.S.-Russian rapprochement over Syria under a second Obama administration is unlikely, Pushkov said.
“The Obama administration has placed all its bets on supporting the armed opposition,” Pushkov said. “I don't see any signs the interests of Moscow and Washington might intersect on this issue.
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia and the architect of Obama’s “reset” policy, was unavailable to comment on developments in bilateral ties under a second Obama White House, the U.S. embassy in Moscow said.
Given their disagreements on the international stage, trade relations may prove to be a stabilizing force in U.S.-Russia ties under the next White House administration, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
If “some major U.S. business players” enter the Russian market, then “relations will be on a much more even keel,” Trenin said. “For Putin, it’s not so much the White House he’s targeting, but rather the boardrooms of the major companies.”
Both Obama and Romney support normalizing trade relations with Russia, but a complicating factor could be the so-called Magnitsky bill, legislation currently working its way through the U.S. Congress that would punish Russian officials suspected of corruption and rights abuses.
The Obama administration has called the legislation unnecessary, while the Romney campaign wants to tie the bill to normalized trade relations.
Romney “believes that permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) should only be granted to Russia on the condition that the Magnitsky human rights bill be passed," the campaign’s policy director, Lanhee Chen, said in a statement Thursday.
The bill is named after tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail after accusing Russian law enforcement officials of looting taxpayer funds.
The passage of the Magnitsky bill will likely ratchet up bilateral tensions, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs.
The dispute is unlikely, however, to seriously impact areas of cooperation such as supply lines through Russia to Afghanistan, especially with a planned U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2014, Lukyanov said. “Both sides understand what’s critically important and what isn’t.”