MOSCOW — When Mitt Romney steps on the stage tonight in Boca Raton, Fla., to debate foreign policy with President Obama, his challenge will often be to draw a distinction between his proposals and the president’s policies. In many areas, notably Iran, their positions are very similar. But one area where the Republican candidate and the president differ sharply is on their view of Russia.
During an interview with CNN in March, Romney called Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.” But is that a fair characterization, or just campaign trail bluster? Analysts are divided, but most admit there is evidence to support both sides.
“Russia is clearly not America’s number one geopolitical foe.It lacks the economic and conventional military capability to live up to that mantle,” Stephen Flanagan, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News by email. “That said, the Kremlin is undermining stability in the Middle East and the effectiveness of the U.N.”
“I would say that Gov. Romney’s assertion is motivated by a calculation that a strong stance on Russia plays well with a segment of the American electorate. Given the challenges posed by international terrorism, Afghanistan, turmoil in the broader Middle East and a rising China, it is very difficult to see Russia as our number one problem,” said Stephen Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and now an analyst at the Brookings Institute.
“It’s political hyperbole to suggest they are our biggest problem,” Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, told ABC News. “There is something to it in the sense that if you look at the world through the prism of the right side of some issues and the wrong side, Russia tends to be on the other side of us. And if you’ve picked the right side, then Russia is on the wrong side.”
Others noted that Romney’s remarks represent the views of many in his party.
“Gov. Romney’s statement is reflective of widespread disappointment with the reset among many Republicans. Many see Moscow as on the opposite side from the United States in dealing with major international issues, particularly Syria, and believe this is clear evidence that the reset has failed,” said Paul Saunders, the executive director at the Center for the National Interest. Romney’s remarks did not go unnoticed in the Kremlin.
Then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev immediately dismissed the comments, saying Romney was stuck in the Cold War. But Romney doubled down in an op-ed on Foreign Policy magazine’s website and said President Obama’s policies of outreach were to blame.
He held his ground in another CNN interview in July, saying: “There’s no question but that in terms of geopolitics — I’m talking about votes at the United Nations and actions of a geopolitical nature — Russia is the No. 1 adversary in that regard.”
Six months later, however, President Vladimir Putin said Romney’s comments would only harden Russia’s stance, particularly its opposition to U.S.-led plans to place a missile defense system in Eastern Europe to guard against an attack by Iran. Russia has insisted in written assurances to guarantee the system is not aimed at its own nuclear arsenal.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has tried to fight the perception that its Russia policy has failed. Shortly after taking office in 2009, the administration launched what it called a “reset” in relations with Moscow. While that initially yielded what many analysts agree was substantially improved relations with the Kremlin, relations have again soured, in large part due to sharp disagreements on policies in the Middle East.
Indeed, in justifying his characterization of Russia in March, Romney pointed out that Russia often stands in the way of key American foreign policy goals. After supporting tougher sanctions on Iran for its defiance of international demands to halt its nuclear enrichment activities, Russia reversed course and blocked subsequent efforts to impose additional sanctions.
In Libya in 2011, the Kremlin accused the U.S.-led coalition of misleading Russia into supporting a U.N. intervention that gave cover to a NATO-led military operation that helped oust longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. And the difference between Moscow and Washington has perhaps most acutely been seen in Syria, where Russia has appeared eager to back the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s last ally in the region and a major arms client.
Russia even vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on the Assad government. More recently, Putin provided more evidence that relations have deteriorated. He has accused the United States of funding the unprecedented wave of protests against his government.
In the past six weeks Russia has expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development and announced it will suspend cooperation on a highly successful deal to secure loose Soviet era nuclear material. Obama, however, has maintained a willingness to engage Russia. On March 26, he was caught on an open microphone telling Medvedev he would have more “flexibility” to negotiate the missile defense issue after the November election. The Romney campaign immediately pounced on that as a sign of Obama’s weakness (and prompting Romney’s “foe” comment.)
Most analysts, however, say that while Obama’s efforts yielded progress like signing New START, which reduces each country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, by almost any measure the “reset” is over.
“No matter the outcome on Nov. 6, the U.S. will need a comprehensive review of its policy toward Russia,” said Heather Conley, the director of the center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe Program. She believes the reset ended with the spat of intervention in Libya.
“We are now post-reset,” Rojansky agreed.