Romney's GOP convention remarks rub Russia the wrong way

Romney's chilly comments about Moscow at the Republican convention stirred up Russian media. But foreign policy experts say Romney would handle Russia much as Obama has.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addresses delegates before speaking at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30.

Mitt Romney has raised hackles in Russia, not for the first time, with a tough set of convention remarks that suggest the US can expect a new cold war if he's elected in November.

Mr. Romney, who previously roiled Russians by declaring that Russia is "our number one geopolitical foe" – a remark he later walked back a bit – caused another outbreak of mass annoyance in Moscow today, with his insistence that under a Romney presidency the US will not be as indulgent toward Russia as President Obama has been.

Mr. Obama "abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments, but is eager to give Russia's President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election," Romney said, referring to to an embarrassing open mic conversation with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama asked the Russians to downplay criticism of US missile defense plans until after November.

"Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone," he added.

It wasn't much, but it was enough to set the Russian media to warning of a new cold war if Romney wins in November. "Once again Russia's on America's list of adversaries," shouted Thursday's headline in the independent Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The online newspaper, which also publishes in English, warned that "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan promise Russia Republican hell...  the official Republican candidates for president and vice-president support the radicalization of the country's foreign policies, particularly about the relations with Russia."

And a report issued Thursday by the international banking conglomerate Citi Inc. suggested that a Romney victory could drive Russia's stock market down by as much as 10 percent. "If Obama is concerned about restraining those domestic forces which would unleash cold war rhetoric, then it appears that Romney would encourage this process," with dire implications for Russian investment, the report said.

'Campaign sloganeering'

But Russian foreign policy specialists say there's probably less to Romney's rhetoric than meets the ear.

"I think this is largely campaign sloganeering," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

"Romney may be talking a cold war line, as if he pines for the clarity of those days, but there's little substance in it. In fact, the main thing about Romney is that he seems to lack any vision at all," says Mr. Lukyanov. "He never dealt much with foreign policy, never had anything to do with Russia. If he wins, the biggest problem will probably be a long period of confusion while he tries to figure out what he actually wants to do."

The 'reset'

Obama came into office pledging to "reset" relations with Russia after a long chill, which some observers even dubbed a "second cold war," under former president George W. Bush.

The achievements of that "reset" have been significant. In late 2009, Obama shelved Bush-era plans to station long-range anti-missile interceptors in Poland, at least partially relieving Russia's deepest fears about US intentions toward its Soviet-ear nuclear deterrent.  The next year the two sides signed New START, the first full-scale nuclear arms reduction treaty since the cold war.

And after years of non-cooperation, Moscow and Washington began working together to support the beleaguered NATO mission in Afghanistan, including joint measures to fight drug trafficking and, early this year, the Kremlin's offer of an airbase in the Volga region of Ulyanovsk to assist NATO efforts to resupply its forces in Afghanistan.

But those mutual accomplishments have been overshadowed, especially in the past year, by Russia's support for embattled Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad and Washington's growing criticism of Putin over human rights and democracy issues.

Even the official Republican program, which contains just two short paragraphs on Russia, appears to balance tough talk about Russia's need to change its allegedly anti-democratic and neo-imperialist course with a recognition that "we do have common imperatives: ending terrorism, combating nuclear proliferation, promoting trade, and more."

Russian experts say there's no appetite in Moscow for a new cold war, and though the establishment would probably prefer to see Obama return in November, they could probably find a modus vivendi with a President Romney.

"Despite Obama's 'reset', you can't say we've developed a fully normalized relationship between Russia and the US. Things remain quite complicated," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "There are things we need to talk about, such as strategic stability and Afghanistan, and one has the impression that any US administration will continue those discussions. And there are things we disagree about, and that acrimonious dialogue will probably continue no matter who is elected president in November."

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