Saturday, 16 June 2012
Romney, Russia, And Ukraine
KIEV, Ukraine -- President Barack Obama’s private remarks to Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at a summit in Seoul in March, unleashed a foreign policy storm between the White House and Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the US presidency. It also opened up a long overdue debate on whether Russia remains America’s primary adversary. At the end of his meeting with Medvedev, Obama asserted that he would have “more flexibility” after the November elections in dealing with controversial issues such as Missile Defense (MD). The remarks set off alarm bells among Republicans that Obama was placating the Kremlin by making major concessions on MD. Some Republican leaders even charged the White House with secretive deal making about US national security. Democrats in turn attacked Romney as a Cold Warrior for claiming that Russia remained America’s “number-one geopolitical enemy.” Obama himself had previously asserted that Putin still had a foot in the Cold War past. But all such Cold War comparisons miss the most important question: in present-day geopolitical configurations is Russia a partner or a competitor for the US? The answer is that both Obama and Romney are correct. Obama’s Russia “reset” was based on the premise that Moscow can be drawn into cooperative relations by focusing on joint projects. And this proved useful in signing a new arms control agreement, gaining NATO access to Afghanistan across the former Soviet Union, and placing limited UN sanctions on Iran. However, in the bigger picture Romney is right that a resurgent Russia ultimately challenges US interests in numerous domains. His views are shared by many senior Republicans, including Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl. According to Romney, Russia’s nuclear arsenal, its energy politics, its geographic position astride Europe and Asia, the veto it wields on the UN Security Council, and its domestic authoritarianism present serious challenges for Washington. And among the regional challenges are the future of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics that are seeking to avoid incorporation in a new Moscow-dominated bloc. Although Romney has not been specific on Ukraine or the broader region, he has strongly favored NATO enlargement eastward, condemned Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory, and supported the emplacement of the MD system in Central Europe. In doing so, Romney has depicted Obama’s foreign policy as weak and indecisive. Although much of this is electioneering bluster, Democrat representatives are themselves aggressively defending the president by exaggerating Romney’s comments on Russia as “reckless and dangerous.” Democrats also underscore Obama’s foreign policy successes in decimating al Qaeda’s leadership, ending the Iraq war, and initiating a transition in Afghanistan. If Ukraine was a developing democracy and eager to join NATO and the EU, much like Georgia, it would benefit from more substantial support among the majority of Republicans. But Kiev’s problem is Ukraine’s reversals in democratic development and its deteriorating human rights record. This can rebound negatively if Romney reaches the White House. The human rights constituency in Washington spans both parties and one of its most active champions is John McCain, who is likely to be a senior voice on foreign policy in a future Republican administration. US support for Ukrainian independence may be tempered by condemnation of its internal politics, much like in Belarus. Hence, it will be vital for Kiev to demonstrate that it is determined to maintain its national sovereignty, as Washington has doubts about Minsk’s commitment to statehood. The Romney approach may be even more evident toward Russia, where the Putinist system not only destroys democracy, but also threatens US allies and partners. Putin’s assertive foreign policy distracts attention from domestic upheavals by depicting the US as the major global adversary intent on breaking up Russia. Whatever the degree of cooperation in arms control or counter-terrorism, the fundamental relationship between the US and Russia will remain competitive and potentially conflictive. While the Democrats are right that one can work with Moscow in certain circumscribed areas, Romney is also correct that at present no single power is as well positioned as Russia to disrupt America’s national interests. And a Romney administration could prove more intent on responding to Moscow’s challenges.