Romney talks up Russia’s role as US foe as Obama celebrates political successes

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take to the stage in Florida on Monday night, the eyes of the Kremlin will be watching.

Obama has presented his “reset” in relations with Russia as a key foreign policy success. Romney has instead called the country “our number one geopolitical foe”.

In Russia, where politics is seen as a dark game conducted in sealed-off rooms far from the public eye, and where Washington is seen as constantly plotting Russia’s demise, the differing positions are generally viewed some amusement.

“Some people say it’s easier to have an open guy then have a guy who in fact follows the same anti-Russian line but is hypocritical,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in global affairs. “For them, Obama is the same as all of them.”

Obama’s administration has pointed to a string of successes with Russia – negotiating a new Start arms reduction treaty, co-operating on Afghanistan, getting the country into the World Trade Organisation – as an example of the president’s foreign policy savvy. Yet those successes came before Vladimir Putin made anti-Americanism a foundation of his third presidential term. Since then, the US has seen its ambassador to Russia harassed, its state department blamed for creating the opposition to Putin, its aid agency expelled and a key arms clean-up agreement, Nunn-Lugar, torn to shreds.

That has allowed Romney’s advisers to call the reset a “complete disaster” and use the issue as one of the starkest points of difference between him and his opponent.

Putin gave a backhanded endorsement to a Romney win last month, when he praised the Republican challenger for issuing a “straightforward” assessment of his views on Russia.

“That Mr Romney considers us enemy number one 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 told journalists. “I am actually very grateful to him for formulating his position in a straightforward manner.”

Lukyanov said many inside Russia took the formulation with pride, a sign that Russia managed to regain a status it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. “It’s the highest assessment of Russia since Gorbachev,” he said. “No one has put Russia on the same level as the US since, probably, Reagan. In this regard, it was amusing and good to hear.”

Yet concerns exist that for all his bluster, Romney, as president, would relegate Russia to the backburner – if there is anything the Kremlin hates more than being disliked, it is being ignored.

“It’s clear that Romney is not anti-Russian – he doesn’t know Russia, he has no interest in it, and in his case it’ll most likely be same attitude as we saw in the beginning of the Bush administration, when they didn’t understand why they should pay attention to this country,” Lukyanov said.

Many Russians have seen Romney’s attacks on their country as a pre-election ploy, even the usually flamboyantly anti-American Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist LDPR party. “This is, of course, a pre-election approach,” Zhirinovsky said earlier this year, in an uncharacteristically calm fashion. “But of course, Mitt Romney isn’t right. Forty years ago, our army was in Europe. If the tanks start up, eardrums in all European capitals will burst,” he added.

Average Russians appear to be taking heed as well. According to a new poll released on Wednesday, only 4% of Russians think a Romney win would be in Russia’s national interest, versus 42% who would prefer an Obama win.

Whether it’s the anti-Americanism that has flooded Russia’s televisions and political speeches since Putin announced his intention to return to the presidency late last year, or Romney’s statements on his view of the country, something has changed.

The percentage of Russians who say they have a “positive attitude” towards the US dropped from 56% to 46% over the past 12 months, according to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. The number of those with a “negative attitude” grew from 27% to 38% in the same time, it found.

And many appear at a loss to understand what form Romney’s rhetorical anti-Russia stance would take. “People here, at least specialists, know that what Romney is saying is coming not from some especially anti-Russian stance, but mostly because of his ignorance and disinterest,” Lukyanov said.

“He’s collecting stereotypes which are widespread, and that’s enough for him now,” he said. “What kind of policy he will pursue is something we don’t actually know.”

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