In the most important speech of his life, Mitt Romney accepted the U.S. Republican party’s nomination for president Thursday, vowing to toughen Washington’s dealings with Russia and President Vladimir Putin should he win the White House.
“Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone,” Romney told the boisterous crowd at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Romney has accused Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama of being a feeble negotiator and caving into Russian pressure by “walking away” from plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
The Obama administration says it wants to build a reconfigured missile system to shoot down short and medium range Iranian missiles instead, arguing that it offers better protection for American allies.
During his acceptance speech at the convention, Romney also said President Obama is “eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires after the election.” The line was a reference to President Obama’s hot mic snafu in South Korea this past spring, when he was heard whispering to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” on contentious bilateral issues following the November U.S. presidential election.
Romney has repeatedly portrayed Russia as an unrepentant U.S. antagonist, prompting officials in Moscow to accuse him of stooping to Hollywood tough talk and Cold War–style posturing.
Should Romney win the U.S. presidency this November, his administration would intensify pressure on the Kremlin over a range of issues, including those related to democracy and human rights, said Leon Aron, a key architect of the candidate’s Russia policy, during an interview ahead of Romney’s speech.
Aron said the Romney administration would step up its public criticism of Russia’s rights record, though he conceded the White House has few levers with which to influence Russia’s domestic political developments. Historically, however, words from Washington have mattered in Moscow policymaking circles when it comes to human rights, he said.
“There’s only one country ultimately whose opinion matters to Russia, and that’s the United States,” said Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. “ … Khrushchev did not say ‘Let’s catch up with and overtake France.’”
Romney described Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” in a March interview with CNN. The comment raised eyebrows among political opponents and even foreign policy veterans from his own party.
Medvedev, now Russia’s prime minister, shot back, quipping that Romney’s comment “smells of Hollywood.” Romney should check his watch, Medvedev added. “It is 2012, not the mid-1970s.”
Senior members of Romney’s national security team are not softening the campaign’s rhetoric, however. During an event at this week’s Republican Convention, Pierre-Richard Prosper, a special adviser to the Romney campaign on foreign policy issues, reiterated that Russia remains a U.S. foe.
“They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable,” Prosper said.
While rancor may permeate many of the Romney campaign’s public statements on Russia, harsh election-season rhetoric is unlikely to influence bilateral relations significantly, political analysts said.
“The negative rhetoric will put Russian officials somewhat more on edge,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. “But I think they’ll be waiting to see exactly what [U.S.] policy changes there will be, and then they’ll react to that.”
President Obama has touted his administration’s achievements under its “reset” policy with Russia, highlighting the signing of the New START arms reduction treaty last year as a signature accomplishment of the strategy. Romney was a leading opponent of that treaty.
A Romney administration would likely redouble the U.S. commitment to building a missile defense system in Europe, a policy that will likely complicate future arms control negotiations with Russia, Aron said.
The Kremlin vehemently opposes the plan, and President Vladimir Putin indicated last week that any future bilateral disarmament talks would hinge on whether the United States continues to pursue the missile shield.
A failure by the next U.S. president to negotiate with Russia over the missile defense issue could not only alienate the Kremlin, but U.S. allies in Europe as well, said Steven Pifer, an arms control expert and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“Allies are supportive of the American approach to missile defense in Europe in part, because they see that there is a desire on the part of Washington to engage with Russia cooperatively on missile defense,” said Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
One promising area for cooperation between the White House and the Kremlin on the national security front would be a joint effort to prevent the destabilization of Central Asia, Aron said. Neither country wants to see the spread of militant Islam in a region on Russia’s border that will be crucial as NATO forces execute a planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, he said.
“The Russian leadership publicly—starting with Putin—expressed concerns about NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and for good reason,” said Aron. “It essentially leaves Central Asia unprotected. And that is a nightmare for Russia.”