Obama reelection: Victory over US unilateralism?
On the surface, Russia’s preference in the US presidential race between the incumbent Barack Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney seemed a no-brainer. After all, Romney openly stated on the campaign trail that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and that he would demonstrate “more backbone” with President Vladimir Putin. In the Wild West, those are considered fighting words.
Although much of the tough talk could be chalked up to campaign hype, it was enough to make Moscow quietly support “the devil it knows.”
Obama’s victory, reasoned Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, “signals an important loss of the right-wing conservative forces in the US, which were represented by Obama's rival in the presidential elections, Mitt Romney."
These right-wing conservative forces "undertook a very serious and in some sense even desperate attempt to return the US, including its foreign policy, to George W. Bush time," Pushkov told reporters on Wednesday.
In the anxious post-9/11 world, the Bush administration attracted the wrath of allies and enemies alike when it made the rash decision to invade Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
Despite Russia’s wariness over the neo-conservative agenda, the leading parliamentarian also expressed reservations over Obama, saying he hoped the United States under the Democrat’s second term "will avoid relying only on hard power in its foreign policy and…not try to aggressively restore a uni-polar world."
In other words, Moscow no longer takes Obama’s pledges at face value.
That is rather remarkable considering that the Obama administration initiated a Russia-US “reset,” which was the impetus for Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to sign a historic ‘New Start’ nuclear weapon reduction treaty in 2010. Following that high-water mark in Russia-US relations, the so-called reset has been on a rapid decline.
In hindsight, it seems that the Obama administration attempted to hoodwink Moscow with a less than genuine display of friendliness. First, it signaled a willingness to “reset” relations and slash nuclear weapon stockpiles. So far, so good. After all, who could argue against the idea of freeing the world from the grim spectre of a nuclear apocalypse?
However, at the very same time that Obama was asking Russia to loosen its grip on the nuclear sword, he was busy constructing a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
Washington was forced to reveal its hand when it not only refused to cooperate with Russia on the project, but said it would not provide legal guarantees that the system would not, in some hypothetical scenario, be aimed at Russian territory. No wonder Russian experts view Obama as a slippery partner.
According to one high-profile Russian analyst, now that Obama is free of domestic political wrangling, he will show more flexibility on the NATO European missile defense issue. At the same time, however, he will expect concessions from Moscow. The question remains whether President Putin will accept more conditions in the already damaged reset.
"Obama will keep his word and will press for flexibility on the part of Moscow, but Moscow isn't in a very flexible mood now,” Gleb Pavlovsky told journalists during an election reception hosted by the US Ambassador to Russia on Tuesday.
There will be some friction. He promised flexibility, not unilateral concessions, he added.
Asked whether he expected Obama to give Russia legal guarantees that the missile defense system would not upset the nuclear balance, Pavlovsky said: "With diplomatic subterfuges, one can do anything one wants. It's a matter of giving one thing the name of another."
Meanwhile, at least one Russian political analyst believes Russia’s original optimism over Barack Obama in general and the reset in particular were exaggerated.
Viktor Kremenyuk, Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of US and Canada Studies disagreed with the opinion that Barack Obama's re-election would bolster Russia-US relations.
"It appeared the hopes were inflated," Kremenyuk said. "I think expectations that something good will happen during Obama’s second term is as good as castles made of sand."
The political analyst is not optimistic overt he prospects of any future missile defense agreements with the United States either.
"We may agree on missile defense only in the case of an obvious threat from the Near East or Central Asia, such as Iran or the Taliban,” he stressed. “Thus far, Russia sees no reason to deploy the system.”
Given this atmosphere of mistrust, Russia will be watching Obama’s overtures in the coming months to see if the Democratic leader is sincere about a Russia-US reset, or, like any other politician on the campaign trail, making verbal promises that will prove impossible to keep.