May 22, 2013
U.S.-Russia Relations in Presidential Campaign Spotlight
Posted on Oct 26, 2012
By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula
At the end of the day, many things will not change: As long as U.S. troops remain at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s side, the U.S. will need Russia, and both candidates agree that troops will remain at least until 2014. The American government also wants Russian support in the U.N. Security Council to gain international recognition and legitimacy for foreign policy actions. Moreover, new challenges lie ahead and China is becoming a main competitor in the international arena, for both Russia and the U.S. Finally, in the face of U.S. budget shortfalls, it is unlikely that Romney will be able to realize his plan to expand military spending. The more assertive role that hawks want for the U.S. on the international stage, beyond what has already been realized, is hence more of a mirage and no threat to improved relations with Russia.
Obama’s pragmatic Russian policy is unlikely to create enthusiasm on either side, especially since it is unclear in which direction it would be developed further. Negative stereotypes and phobias are still widespread in both countries more than 20 years after the Cold War ended. Nonetheless, pragmatic voices prevail. Russian foreign policy legalism and pragmatism are undoubtedly motivated by self-interest, but they entail real new policy options. Take for instance Russia’s suggestion to include Iran in possible Syria peace talks, a possibility which may not be that unlikely given that Iran already engaged in direct talks with the U.S. on Iraq in 2007. In the end, both sides, and the U.S. as the stronger partner in particular, must remain committed to multilateralism to develop the relations between the two countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov summed this up well in his call for a closer partnership: “If we talk about ‘reset,’ it is clear that, using computer terminology, it cannot last forever. Otherwise it would not be a ‘reset’ but a program failure,” he told Russian daily Kommersant.
The Russian public is also in favor of good relations with the U.S. According to the independent polling institute Levada, Russians have a critical but overall favorable view of the United States. Although 67 percent of Russian respondents said in a September survey that the U.S. tried to impose international laws on others to which it did not abide, roughly half said they had a positive attitude toward the country. This opinion has been relatively stable since January 2010, though in slight decline lately. Moreover, in a Levada poll taken Oct. 19 to 22 that asked Russians to choose between the two contenders for the U.S. presidency, a majority remained undecided. Fifty-one percent said it was difficult to say which candidate would be better for Russian-American relations. Among those who did submit an preference, 41 percent chose Obama, whereas just 8 percent selected Romney.
Ivo Mijnssen holds an MA in Eastern European History and Sociology from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He is currently a Gerda Henkel Foundation fellow writing his Ph.D. at the University of Basel. He received his BA from Brown University and was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford. He regularly contributes to various publications as a freelance journalist and recently published a book on the Russian youth movement Nashi, “The Quest for an Ideal Youth in Putin’s Russia.”
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