Russia and the US: Friend, Foe or It’s Complicated?

Mar 30, 2012 6:00am

Mitt Romney’s calling Russia the “number one geo-political foe” of America has elicited strong responses from Capitol Hill to the Kremlin, where outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev said Romney’s comments smell of “Hollywood” and are not based on reality.

But one thing all sides can agree on is the reality of what happens during a U.S. presidential campaign. And one Russian expert says that’s translating to politics over policy.

“Russia bashing plays well to a certain part of the American electorate,” Steven Pifer, the director of the arms control initiative at the Brookings Institute, told ABC News. “I find it hard to believe that the Romney foreign policy team really does see Russia as foe number one.”

Pifer cites North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, the threat from radical Islam and the rise of China’s global influence as more important to America’s geopolitical position. He also says that for every issue Russia has not cooperated on, for example Syria and America’s development of a missile defense system, there have been several in which Russia has remained a key ally.

“Russia has been very helpful in helping American supplies going to Afghanistan, for example, so that we’re no longer as dependent on Pakistan,” says Pifer.

Pifer isn’t the only Russian expert to find fault in Romney’s statement. Cliff Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Eurasia group,  calls Romney’s statement that Russia is foe number one “ridiculous.” Kupchan cited Iran’s nuclear potential nuclear threat, and instability in Afghanistan and Iraq as bigger geopolitical issues than Russia.

“He took advantage of [Obama's] open mic incident and went way way too far with it,” says Kupchan. “I hope that he just made a gaffe, because if he didn’t, I find it very worrisome.”

Daniel Treisman, a political science professor at UCLA and author of “After the Deluge: Regional Crises and Political Consolidation in Russia,” says that Romney may have been playing to a Republican base, which often views Russia with suspicion. It’s a ploy Putin often uses as well during elections, making America out to be the heavy-handed evil empire.

The problem with this type of rhetoric, says Treisman, is that if Romney were to be elected it could make it harder for him to go back to the Russians and negotiate without risking being seen as a politician who flip-flops.

“It will be pretty hard for him not to take a harder line on Russia,” says Treisman. “He’s kind of painted himself into a corner.”

Romney defended his statement in the media, saying that Russia consistently stands up for “the world’s worst actors” and is constantly opposing the United States at the U.N.

“It is always Russia typically with China alongside and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the security council that has the heft of the security council and is of course a massive security power – Russia is the geopolitical foe and the idea that our president is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something that I find very, very alarming,” Romney told CNN.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the relationship between the countries “complex,” reiterating the administration’s position that where the U.S. and Russia can work together they will, while also acknowledging disagreements. One of the biggest disputes remains the United States’ plans for developing a missile-defense system. The U.S. says the system is for protection only and is not a threat to Russia. The Kremlin wants a legal guarantee, meaning a treaty, that the system won’t be used specifically against Russia, something that would have virtually no chance of being ratified by Congress.

Secretary Clinton has said that while the U.S. is taking Russia’s concerns into consideration, the missile defense development will continue.

“We want to cooperate with Russia on missile defense. We think it is in everyone’s interest to do so,” said the Secretary. “But we will continue the work we are doing with NATO and we will be looking to complete that process in the years ahead.”

Despite Republicans’ claims that President Obama put U.S. national security in jeopardy with his hot mic moment telling President Medvedev that he will be able to negotiate the issue better after re-election, Pifer says the Kremlin was already in a “holding pattern” with officials privately saying they are not going to proceed with any serious negotiations until they know who will be the next U.S. president.

In the meantime, the United States will continue to work with Russia on issues like keeping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon by abiding by the arms embargo, and finding a solution to the Syria conflict, says Pifer.

Pifer adds that labeling Russia as simply a foe or a friend of America, isn’t accurate. The truth is that the country is both, a much more nuanced answer, but one that “does not lend itself well to the kind of rhetoric used in a political campaign,” he says.

“That’s not just a criticism of Governor Romney, but of politics in general.”

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