Russia to Romney: How could we be your No. 1 enemy?

Mitt Romney's comment has astounded Russians, who acknowledge mixed relations with the US but point to Russia's integration with the international community as proof that they are not foe No. 1.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the Livonia Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Farmington Hills, Mich., in this Feb. 16 file photo.

Memo to Mitt Romney from Russia: Didn't the cold war end more than two decades ago?

That pretty much sums up the reaction from many Russians today, where Mr. Romney's "enemy No. 1" jab at Moscow has been played over and over by official media, amid mounting public outrage, since he uttered it in response to President Obama's inadvertently overheard blunt political chat with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of a security conference in Seoul.

Mr. Obama was seen making nice with Mr. Medvedev and, apparently unaware that microphones were on, asking the Russians to dial back their objections to US missile defense plans until after he's reelected in November, when "I'll have more flexibility."

Romney pounced, not merely at the appearance of secret diplomacy by Obama, but seemingly at Russia itself.

"This is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They – they fight every cause for the world's worst actors. The idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed," Romney said in an interview with CNN. "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 I find very, very alarming."

While the suggestion of electoral connivance between Obama and Medvedev has made little impression in Russia, which has just been through its own carefully orchestrated presidential campaign, Romney's comments hit like a bomb.

"It came as a shock. You just don't expect to hear that from someone who's running for US president," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "I thought an enemy was a country or force that seeks to kill Americans or destroy the US, not a country like Russia that has some civilized differences, which it expresses in forums like the [United Nations] Security Council."

Attitudes toward the US have fluctuated among Russians since the USSR collapsed more than 20 years ago. During the 1990s, the Kremlin sought to align itself with Western policies, but over the past decade, under now president-elect Vladimir Putin, it has carved out a more independent stance, often irritating Washington with uncooperative acts, such as two UN Security Council vetoes of resolutions aimed at international intervention in Syria's crisis.

But most Russian experts point out that occasional quarrels over big issues like NATO expansion and missile defense – which often have a distinct cold war ring to them – are more than compensated for by many examples of Russia's progressive integration into the world community over recent years. Russia is a member of the G8, it sits on the Council of Europe, and late last year it finally joined the World Trade Organization. The military confrontation that once divided Europe into armed camps has dissipated, most former Soviet allies are now members of NATO, and this month Russia even offered its former enemy the use of an advanced Russian airbase in the Volga region of Ulyanovsk to help ease the strain of resupplying embattled NATO forces in Afghanistan.

A poll carried out by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center earlier this month found that 42 percent of Russians think relations with the US are either "friendly," "good neighborly," or "normal and peaceful," while 47 percent think they are "cool" or "tense," and just 4 percent said they are "hostile."

"I can't see Romney's remarks as anything but an emotional outburst," says Gennady Gudkov, deputy chair of the State Duma's security committee. "That just doesn't correspond to the actual state of relations between our countries at all. Not only is Russia not a country that's hostile to the US, we are actually allies in many geopolitical issues. Russians may sometimes verbally abuse America, but we tend to keep our money over there, both privately and in the form of our national currency reserves, which are held largely in US dollars…  In fact, Russia is far more interested in our relations with the US than the Americans are in their ties with Russia."

Obama has responded that his conversation with Medvedev was fairly normal pre-election banter, and that he was not "hiding the ball" from the American people when he asked the Russians to postpone what's likely to be a very nasty East-West spat over missile defense until after November.

But, speaking in Seoul yesterday, Medvedev didn't even bother to address that issue, and went straight after Romney.

"Regarding ideological clichés, every time this or that side uses phrases like 'enemy No. 1,' this always alarms me, this smells of Hollywood and certain times [of the past]," Medvedev said. "I would recommend all US presidential candidates ... do two things. First, when phrasing their position, one needs to use one's head, one's good reason, which would not do harm to a presidential candidate."

But some experts warn that East-West cooperation remains little more than skin-deep, and fundamental differences on both sides could lead to a new cold war. During his recent election presidential campaign, Vladimir Putin sounded pretty much like a Russian version of Mitt Romney when he accused the US of seeking global hegemony and "absolute invulnerability"  at the expense of everyone else.

And Romney's policy director, Lanhee Chen, made clear today that the "number one geopolitical foe" formulation was a carefully thought-out Romney position, and not an off-the-cuff remark.

"In contrast to President Obama, Governor Romney is clear-eyed about the geopolitical challenges Russia poses," Mr. Chen said. "Russia's nuclear arsenal, its energy resources, it geographic position astride Europe and Asia, the veto it wields on the UN Security Council, and the creeping authoritarianism of its government make Russia a unique geopolitical problem."

There are some in Russia, who see themselves as the mirror image of Romney's advisers, who welcome that kind of candor. 

"Mitt Romney spoke the simple truth," says Alexander Dugin, head of the International Eurasian Movement, a shadowy group of officials, businessmen and ultra-nationalist intellectuals that reportedly has extensive Kremlin access.

Mr. Dugin favors the creation of a strong Eurasian bloc of states, with Russia at its core, that would resist US influence and the encroachments of Western culture.

"Russia, as a strategic space, as the heartland of Eurasia, represents the main obstacle to US global domination," he says. "It's very rare for anyone to state this openly, but those who schooled in geopolitics find nothing strange in Romney's statement. We accept the challenge." 

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