The Need for a Nuanced Russia Policy

An Analysis of the Candidates’ Takes on Russian Relations

“A wolf with a limited point of view” — this is how Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (then president) referred to the United States days after Condoleezza Rice spoke on US-Russian cooperation at Boston College in May 2006.

Whoever is elected to the U.S. presidency, the job of ‘dealing with Russia,’ won’t be easy …

And not just for a less internationally-experienced candidate like Barack Obama. To start with, both candidates are being handed by the media an all too familiar simplistic Cold War-styled script. The second debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee on Oct. 7 did just that.

Asked to assess Russia amid already strained US-Russian relations, the candidates were asked the barbed question, “Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?” with the option to reply “yes” or “no.”

Both skillfully skipped past the pointed replies, but made clear that they have problems with Russia.

“Maybe,” McCain replied, adding, “If I say yes, then that means that we’re reigniting the old Cold War. If I say no, it ignores their behavior.”

“I think they’ve engaged in an evil behavior, and I think that it is important that we understand they’re not the old Soviet Union, but they still have nationalist impulses that I think are very dangerous,” Obama said, as if taking his cue from McCain’s long-standing anti-Russia stance — which he seems to have been doing with increased frequency when commenting on foreign policy.

Now, with just two weeks to go after the final presidential debate on Oct. 15, one wonders if this reductionistic mindset will taint US-Russia relations, be it under an Obama or McCain presidency.

The Russia Question may well take a backseat to leave room for Iraq, Iran, China, or most obviously the financial crisis, as it did during the foreign policy-turned economy debate of last week.

However, with an increasingly assertive and aggressive Russia and growing tension in the Central Asian republics following the war with Georgia (where both sides are vying for strategic control of energy) Obama and McCain would do well to 1) study the region closely and 2) know who they are talking to.

The United States’ response to the five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia in August largely ignored the local and regional factors and instantly resorted to high geopolitics — an easy formula that the new US president should avoid when dealing with Russia and the CIS region. As for his interlocutor, it is clear to all now that Putin is the one running the show and it should be no surprise if he engineered a comeback.

Particularly when it comes to the two new American players on the international scene — Obama and Palin — one wonders if they realize how dysfunctional the US-Russia relationship can be. Despite crucial partnerships on many fronts, from trade to space, and ecology to antiterrorism, diverging views on core concepts such as democracy and human rights, an endless blame game and a one-sided war of words have been the trademarks of talks between Moscow and Washington.

On the US side, just as on Russia’s, finger-shaking and talk that casts the other as ‘the enemy’ has been characteristic of American policy on Russia throughout Bush’s two terms.

There is no minimizing the despotic nature of Putin’s Russia, which over the past couple of years has been marked by a trampling of the opposition, the free press, and the independent judiciary. The government has resorted to sending its message through harassment, rigged trials, and slaying of critics.

Should he be elected, McCain’s unresolved Cold War issues and Russophobic rhetoric promise to exacerbate such ‘we’ vs. ‘they’ sentiments and continue down the anti-Russia hysteria path.

Maybe he really did have a point when he said that when he looked into Putin’s eyes he saw three letters: K.G.B. (This is itself a reference to George W. Bush’s own declaration that when he first met the Russian president, he caught a glimpse of Putin’s soul by looking into his eyes and found him to be trustworthy.)

But his calls for kicking Russia out of the Group of 8 (G8) nations rather than engaging the country will only further alienate the Russian people and their new president, Dmitry Medvedev. Arguably, this may seem mild compared to his running mate Sarah Palin’s declaration last month that she was ready to go to war with Russia on behalf of Georgia, whose democratic credentials the Republican party has been trumpeting about with especial vehemence.

As last month’s brief war showed, Saakashvili is no saint. However, it also helps to know about McCain’s top foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann’s long financial relationship with Saakashvili to lobby his interests in the United States, which earned him nearly one million dollars. Or that Palin’s husband works for BP, the oil company that has been locked in a battle with the Russian government over its 50 percent stake in Russian energy giant TNK, and that BP is the largest stakeholder in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline — which runs through Georgia.

In short, there is no doubt that Big Oil is behind much of the McCain-Palin agenda, which throws into question the motivation behind their broadly broadcast concerns over democracy in the region.

The United States may have good reasons for NATO expansion and its plans for a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe, but McCain’s anger-filled pronouncements on Russia verge on provocation and following the Bush Administration’s debacle in Iraq, one can only wonder what kind of world order such aggressive leadership would create.

The Democrats are not entirely clean of dubious dealings with the Georgian ruling elite either, as was made clear by Bill Clinton’s frolicking on the yachts of KGB-connected Ukrainian nationalist politician Viktor Yanukovich, whose party ‘Our Ukraine’ received advice from the firm run by Clinton’s pollster, Stan Greenberg, during the 2004 presidential election.

Palin’s assurances that she is knowledgeable on Russian affairs on the basis of Alaska’s proximity to Russia raises similar doubts on the future government, although on a different level …

… the exact same level as Obama’s lack of experience in negotiating with big international players. This is a worrying scenario, although Obama’s past political records prove him to be a fast learner. On the other hand, having highly Russia-critical Zbigniew Brzezinski in his foreign policy team is where our same McCain-type leadership fears could resurface.

Although Russian polls show that, were Russians allowed to vote in U.S. elections, they would prefer Obama over McCain, the resurgence of xenophobic ultra-nationalism in the Russian leadership and society in recent years may make the job harder for Obama. This is a country that has seen rampant racism and increased attacks against non-white citizens over the past couple of years, and where the word ‘negr’ [nigger] is perfectly acceptable in the Russian language. Dubious jokes on skin color abound in TV shows and advertisements.

Having said this, Condoleezza Rice seemed to have had no problems commanding respect among her Russian counterparts on her numerous visits to Moscow.

Just as McCain would need to tone down, Obama needs a more assertive voice when talking to Russia. His style may be more in sync with (at least seemingly) a ‘softer’ Medvedev, But he needs to be ultra clear on policies too. The vague ideal of trying to be everything to all people of his initial campaign will not work in this context, and Putin has proved to be a very shrewd strategist.

Obama may have also a deeper understanding of what Russians went through — as may suggest a comparative chart of what African-Americans and ethnic Russians in Russia have in common, published earlier this year in the now defunct expat newspaper The Exile.

Among the entries are: African-Americans (AA) were freed in 1863 by President Lincoln, Russians were freed in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II; AA only given full voting rights in 1960s, Russians only given full voting rights in 1989, voting rights taken away in 2000; AA: white-only stores, Russians: foreigners-only hard currency stores; AA: problem of fatherless families, Russians: problem of fatherless families; African Americans invented rock’n roll, an African-Russian named Pushkin invented modern Russian literature. The list goes on …

Despite the newspaper’s highly controversial nature — it was closed down by the Kremlin earlier this year — these comparisons may throw some new light on Obama as Russia’s possible interlocutor. One thing is sure, whichever wolf faces the bear in coming months and beyond, and whatever the global economic conditions, he will have to engage rather than enrage him. A new, more nuanced Russia policy, and a redefinition of NATO’s role and U.S. interests in the Caucasus are a true imperative.

Florence Gallez is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Media Studies.