The Obama victory and Russia

EIU: The Russian establishment has generally welcomed and been relieved at the re-election of the US president, Barack Obama. The authorities were right to be relieved. Attempts to argue that the outcome of the election would make no difference, or that the hostile remarks by the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney—including the statement that Russia was the US’s “top geopolitical foe”—were purely election-related rhetoric that could be disregarded, were both wrong.

Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev both welcomed Mr Obama’s re-election. Alexei Pushkov, the United Russia chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said that he hoped Mr Obama’s victory would mean a “less aggressive” US foreign policy. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, hailed the Obama victory.

A lone dissenting voice from the prevailing reaction was voiced by the clownish and now increasingly irrelevant ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinosvky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and a Duma deputy speaker. He said that Mr Obama would not be able to accomplish much and that the US was doomed to stagnation.

Departure from tradition

The Russian preference for Mr Obama is a notable departure from tradition. Historically, Russia and the Soviet Union have found it easier to deal with Republicans, who are generally more pragmatic and less ideological than Democrats.

However, Mr Romney had accused Mr Obama of not putting enough pressure on Russia over the Syrian conflict, Iran’s nuclear programme and Russia’s crackdown on the domestic opposition. He also criticised Mr Obama’s “reset” policy to improve US relations with Russia, accusing him of caving in to Russian pressure on the deployment of a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, and conceding concessions during negotiations on the strategic nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

In comments that might appear sarcastic, Mr Putin insisted that he saw “both an upside and downside” to Mr Romney’s critical statements about Russia. Mr Putin said that the fact that Mr Romney considered Russia an enemy “is a minus,” but that he was grateful to Mr Romney for his “frankness.” It also, Mr Putin insisted, confirmed the rectitude of Russia’s approach to missile defense.

Mr Romney appeared to step back from his hostile remarks in the weeks leading up to the US election. Indeed, on a recent business trip to Moscow, one of Mr Romney’s sons, Matt Romney, reportedly delivered a message to Mr Putin that despite the campaign rhetoric, his father wanted good relations. The partial climbdown was in response to the recognition that Russia still matters in US foreign policy; because of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its ties to states such as Iran and Syria, and its possession of the world’s second-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

A question of motives

Yet the question remains as to what motivated Mr Romney to sharpen his anti-Russian rhetoric in the first place, with the seemingly bizarre and outdated comment on geopolitical enemies, and what made his team expect that it would resonate politically. It in fact reflected deep-seated attitudes within the Republican Party (and not just within its “tea party” wing), and was not just a thoughtless throwaway remark uttered in the heat of an election campaign.

Rivalry with Russia was never going to dominate Mr Romney’s foreign policy, because Russia has neither the agenda nor the heft of the Soviet Union. Yet in important areas—nuclear arms control, missile defense and crises in the Middle East—a Romney presidency could have resulted in markedly higher levels of tension with Russia.

Mr Obama aspires to a nuclear-free world through phased cuts in the arsenals of the nuclear powers. To achieve this, he has shown some flexibility with regard to US plans for ballistic missile defense systems deployed in Europe. Mr Romney was far less prepared to accept limitations on US development of missile-defense capabilities, and showed little interest in new arms-control agreements.

In addition to a friendlier US attitude to Russia than would otherwise have been the case, Mr Obama’s win has resulted in other advantages for Russia. The outgoing secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is not expected to be part of Mr Obama’s second administration, and it is widely expected that she will be replaced as secretary of state by John Kerry, who ran for president in 2004. Although Ms Clinton is not necessarily associated with hostile attitudes to Russia, she is a member of the interventionist wing of the Democrat Party, which is anathema to the government in Russia, while Mr Kerry is generally well regarded.

Other implications of the Obama win

There had also been concern in Russia about serious destabilisation in Russia’s neighbourhood, given Mr Romney’s apparently greater readiness to attack Iran. Aside from the positive political impact for Russia, the Obama administration is likely to support a weaker dollar, which is good for the price of oil. Finally, the Obama win may perhaps paradoxically have a favourable effect on Russia’s opposition. Criticism by Republicans of Russia’s domestic politics could easily have been waved aside by the authorities. But criticism by Mr Obama, especially if combined with a basic respect for Russia and its national interests, would be far more likely to resonate domestically in Russia.

All of this does not mean that relations with Russia were without some serious strains under Mr Obama. Relations were affected by differences over issues ranging from missile defense to the conflict in Syria. At the same time in most areas it is clear that a Romney presidency would have made for a much frostier and less predictable relationship between the two countries, even if one allows for a softening of Mr Romney’s approach to Russia had he come to power.