In debate, Romney reiterates Russia is 'geopolitical foe' of US

The GOP presidential candidate's comments about Russia, which he has repeated several times this year, are likely to irk the Kremlin, but are not apt to change US-Russian relations.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., in early October.

In last night's US presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney once again stated his belief that Russia was a "geopolitical foe" of the US, echoing similar comments he made in March of this year. 

When he has accused Russia of being a "geopolitical foe" in the past, Moscow reacted with confusion and irritation, but little expectation of a change in US-Russian relations.

Mr. Romney first called Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe" during the Republican primaries in March, soon after an open mic caught President Barack Obama asking Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev to dial back their objections to US missile defense plans until after the November elections, when "I'll have more flexibility."

Although ostensibly a political attack against Mr. Obama, Romney's words caused puzzled concern in Moscow, the Monitor's Fred Weir reported.

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." ...

"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."

When Romney repeated his criticism of Russia during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in August – he said that "Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and [Vladimir Putin, who was sworn in as Russia's president in May,] will see a little less flexibility and more backbone" – it again spurred a negative response from Moscow, Weir reported.

"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."

But again, experts told Weir they found it unlikely that Romney would follow through with his tougher talk.

"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 [Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal]. "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." ...

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."

Still, there are some signs that Mr. Putin may be taking Romney at his word. After Romney once again repeated his "geopolitical adversary" position on Russia in September, Putin said in the press that he was "grateful to [Romney] for formulating his stance so clearly, because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems," referring to Russian resistance to a US plan to install anti-missile systems in Europe. The US says such systems are a defense against Iranian rockets, but the Kremlin has long suspected that they are actually meant to target Russian missiles.

"The most important thing for us is that even if he doesn't win now, he or a person with similar views may come to power in four years. We must take that into consideration while dealing with security issues for a long perspective," Putin said. But he noted that he would still work with a Republican administration.

"That Mr. Romney considers us to be enemy No. 1 and apparently has bad feelings about Russia is a minus, but, considering that he expresses himself bluntly, openly and clearly, means that he is an open and sincere man, which is a plus," Putin said. "If he is elected president of the US, certainly we will work with him as an elected head of state."

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