international analysis and commentary

Obama’s victory: a view from Moscow

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As America cast its vote on November 6th, Russians watched with great interest – most favoring Barack Obama. In a Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) survey, more than half of participants said they would have voted for the Democratic incumbent. However, what they may not have known is the results are not likely to significantly change future relations between the US and Russia. Rather, which will most likely continue to be characterized by pragmatism and mutual cooperation, especially in the economic realm.

Like the majority of Russians, the elite in the Kremlin also backed the re-election of Barack Obama. Such preference stems from several sources. Above all, during Obama’s presidency some milestones with regards to Russia were achieved: a new START treaty, mutually beneficial cooperation in the pacification of Afghanistan (related to the struggle against drug trafficking and terrorism), the establishment of joint positions in regard to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, Russia’s accession to the WTO – just­ to mention a few. Moreover, Obama’s first term marked a clear departure from the Bush administration, since the US distanced itself from Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia and accepted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s withdrawal of Ukraine’s application to join NATO.

With regards to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, many Russians were worried that his victory would bring back neoconservatives with their dismissive and hostile attitude toward Russia. Romney’s Cold War-style rhetoric echoed in the now infamous quote “Russia is the United States’ number one geopolitical foe.” He had also made sure to sound tough whenever referring to Vladimir Putin. Romney also criticized Obama’s approach to missile-defense negotiations with Russia and the timing of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, but those dissents were nuanced. In more practical terms, Putin viewed Romney as essentially pragmatic, likely to avoid political extremes and capable of doing business together with Russia. In other words, the difference between the two candidates, as seen from Moscow’s leadership, was based on rhetoric rather than divergent geo-strategic objectives.

Within the US, Russia was barely mentioned during the presidential campaign. Two main factors help explain why. First, the presidential campaign has focused primarily on domestic issues, notably the economy. This was evident even during the October 22nd debate between Obama and Romney which was ostensibly devoted to foreign policy. Second, as Professor Nicolai Petro suggests, rhetoric expresses the vicious cycle in which US foreign policy has been stuck since the collapse of the Soviet Union: one administration’s attempt to improve relations is criticized by the next administration for failing to put pressure on Russia for its values. In other words, the little interest showed toward Russia might be a symptom of a lack of the intellectual and cultural environment necessary for the development of a long-term partnership between the two countries.

Looking at future US-Russia relations, the main question is to what extent the “reset” policy launched by the first Obama administration has worked and what should come next. In many ways Barak Obama’s rebooting cleared all the static and allowed US and Russia to cooperate. Nonetheless, many suggest that the “reset” has now exhausted itself and it is time to look forward. In October Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated in an interview with Kommersant that Moscow and Washington must do more to strengthen relations otherwise the bilateral “reset” will suffer a malfunction: “If we talk about the ‘reset’, it is clear that, using computer terminology, it cannot last forever. Otherwise it would not be a ‘reset’ but a program failure.” Hence, using the same terminology, he suggested that one of the main priorities of the new Obama and Putin administrations should be to “update the software” of the “reset” policy.

Amongst major challenges on the horizon, one should consider the “indirect” confrontation between US and Russia in Central Asia. For now, the major points of contention between Moscow and Washington in the former USSR is the Manas airbase (the transit hub used by the US military in Kyrgyzstan), and US efforts to secure other facilities in Central Asia as the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan draws near.

Powerful human rights lobbies that back President Obama might also become a further reason of friction between the US and Russia. In the past six months alone, while supplying arms and support to Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime, Putin has shut down a US government program inside Russia that dismantled its obsolete nuclear weapons; he has closed UNICEF offices, and restricted USAID operations. 

Notwithstanding these issues, during the campaign Obama stated that, if re-elected, he would be “more flexible” with Russia. As far as Syria is concerned, for instance, despite all Obama’s differences with Putin, the Obama administration has not tried to bypass the UN Security Council to intervene militarily in the country.

On a positive note, it is important to understand the strategic shift in the Kremlin vis-à-vis the US. Since he stepped in as president of the Russian Federation, Putin has in fact aimed at ensuring tighter economic ties with Washington. In other words, he pushed aside talks on arms control under Medvedev’s administration placing at the center of the relationship trade and investment. Putin encouraged the US and other Western CEOs to sign lucrative deals with Rosneft and Gazprom, two state-owned energy companies. Putin has repeatedly complained – at the G20 meeting last June in Mexico and after the APEC summit in Vladivostok in September – that US-Russian trade valued $30 billion in 2011, compared to its $72 billion with Germany and $83 billion with China. In short, his aim is to stabilize US-Russia relations by adding mutual business interests to the mix.

On November 7th, President Putin congratulated Obama on his re-election. In his message, he highlighted the progress made in previous years and expressed hope for further constructive cooperation. He also emphasized that the bilateral relationship is crucial to ensure a stable and secure development in the international arena. In addition, the Russian leader reiterated the invitation to Barack Obama to visit Russia next year. 

Obama’s re-election will not usher in major changes in US-Russia relations. Despite existing challenges, such as the future of the “reset” policy, the war in Syria and tensions in Central Asia, the foundations of a fruitful cooperation between Moscow and Washington are still standing. Obama’s foreign policy with Russia has worked out quite well so far, although it remains very much a work in progress.