U.S. Election Puts U.S.-Russia Ties In Spotlight

President Obama tried to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations, without much success. Republican nominee Mitt Romney says Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Many Russians think the relationship between the two countries will be rockier over the next four years.

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Foreign policy has not played much of a role in the presidential campaign, but we have a reminder this morning of how important it is to any president. And today we continue our series on foreign policy and this fall's election. We're going to focus on Russia. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, no matter who wins, Russians are worried.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: For many Americans, U.S. relations with Russia are represented by the standoff over Syria in the U.N. Security Council. This is as is Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, speaking to the state-funded Russia Today television network, after blocking a U.N. draft resolution that would have put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

VITALY CHURKIN: The strategy of our Western colleagues seems to be to try to whip up tensions in and around Syria at every opportunity. And we needed to veto, together with China, that unacceptable draft.

FLINTOFF: The normally urbane Churkin was blunt and combative in the debate, which pitted Russia and China against the U.S., most of Europe, and the Arab League. This is mild compared to the day in 1960 when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously banged his shoe on the desk at the U.N. General Assembly. But some analysts say Russian and American relations are drifting backward toward a Cold War agenda.

In a widely studied foreign policy speech in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to welcome that. He said that relations between Russia and the U.S. were most stable during the 1980s.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: And has nothing to do with reality, of course, because our relationship in '80s were very, very difficult.

FLINTOFF: This is analyst Alexander Golts, a military expert and editor at Yezhednevny journal. Golts says that Putin, a former Soviet intelligence officer, believes that Washington is behind the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and he believes that the West wants to do the same thing in Russia.

GOLTS: He has no doubt that all demonstrations that took place in Moscow in December, March this year are the result of Western conspiracy.

FLINTOFF: Therefore, Golts says, Putin's strategy is to keep the West preoccupied with Cold War issues, such as counting the number of warheads in each country's nuclear arsenal. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the policy journal Russia in Global Affairs, says that's an agenda that's growing increasingly irrelevant.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: Who cares, actually, how many warheads Russia and the United States have?

FLINTOFF: Lukyanov says Putin's agenda is probably closer to that of the Republicans.

LUKYANOV: It will be easier to deal with a Romney administration because I think that they will just disregard Russia.

FLINTOFF: Based on the statements of the candidate and his advisors so far, Lukyanov says, a Romney administration will stop arms control talks. That plays into Putin's hands, he says, because Russia has no desire to reduce its arsenal at the moment. Lukyanov says that having far more nuclear weapons than China reinforces Russia's sense of military security, and having parity with the U.S. enhances its prestige.

But what is President Obama wins a second term? Is there room for a second reset and a stronger focus on current problems such as Syria and Iran? Victor Kremenyuk says he doesn't expect that President Obama will be as closely engaged with Russia as he once tried to be.

VICTOR KREMENYUK: I think simply that Obama is disillusioned, disappointed. He really wanted to invest heavily into the relations with Russia.

FLINTOFF: Kremenyuk, the deputy director of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies in Moscow, says President Obama may have thought that he found a working partner in former President Dmitry Medvedev, but that Putin proved to be much less cooperative. He says Putin's policy seems to be to keep a clear distance between himself and any U.S. leader.

KREMENYUK: Not to be too close, because when he's close he feels that he's not free to undertake some actions inside Russia, especially directed against dissidents, against business community, and against intellectuals and so on.

FLINTOFF: All three analysts say the next four years could be a time of lost opportunities if the two countries can't find a way to create an agenda that's suited to the problems of the 21st century. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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