Romney's Russia Gambit

Moscow is not Washington's "number-one geopolitical foe." Romney's fiery campaign rhetoric has dangerous policy implications.

Mitt Romney’s recent comments on Russia—in which he characterized Russia as America’s “number-one geopolitical foe”—might make for good politics, but they certainly are bad policy.

Russia is not America’s greatest geopolitical foe; in fact, it has not even decided whether it is a foe at all. Hoping to become part of the West after the Cold War, it has been locked out in part by the EU and NATO approach toward Russia and in part by the difficulties it confronted after the Cold War as a large, formerly communist and economically challenged Central Eurasian power. Yet despite NATO expansion, U.S. missile defense, Jackson-Vanik and much else, Moscow has refused to become a U.S. foe, cooperating with the West on a host of issues from North Korea to the war against jihadism. Most recently, Moscow agreed to the establishment of a NATO base in Ulyanovsk; this is hardly the behavior of a foe, and certainly not the behavior of one’s “number-one geopolitical foe.”

Russia has never acted like an enemy. A real foe would be arming the Taliban against United States and NATO troops in Afghanistan. A real foe would have done the same in Iraq. A real foe would seek to fashion a military alliance and deploy troops near its enemy’s borders, as the USSR and United States did during the Cold War. (The United States continued to do so after the Cold War by expanding NATO to some twelve countries in Eastern Europe, approaching Russia’s borders over Moscow’s objections.)

To be sure, Russia opposes the expansion of the U.S. military presence and political prodemocracy ambitions across the world. But many Americans, including some conservatives, also have similar misgivings about U.S. global policy, especially at a time when the country is spending ourselves into oblivion domestically. Supporting democracy can feel significantly less benign when it is accompanied by the advance to the borders of world history’s most powerful military bloc, replete with nuclear weapons.

Romney tried to explain his assertions on Russia in an op-ed published by Foreign Policy:

Without extracting meaningful concessions from Russia, he abandoned our missile defense sites in Poland. He granted Russia new limits on our nuclear arsenal. He capitulated to Russia's demand that a United Nations resolution on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program exclude crippling sanctions.

Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues. It has continued to arm the regime of Syria's vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America's national security. For three years, the sum total of President Obama's policy toward Russia has been: “We give, Russia gets.”

Let’s consider each of these assertions in turn.

Romney forgets that it was Poland’s obsolete paranoia about Russia and bad geostrategic decision making in Washington and Brussels during the Clinton and Bush administrations that brought NATO to Russia’s western border. Now the Poles, some wittingly some unwittingly, want to repeat this exercise in alienating Moscow by establishing along Russia’s borders a missile-defense system that is aimed against a southern threat and in coming decades could be expanded to counter Russian missiles. Why should the Russians fear a few antimissile systems that are not even capable of challenging Russia’s deterrence? When Moscow acquiesced to reunified Germany’s inclusion in NATO, the Russians were promised that NATO would not expand further east. Twelve new eastern members later, NATO still has a policy of expanding east. What responsible Russian defense-policy maker would now assume that the WMD system will not expand in capability and geography over time?

Romney is right that the administration agreed with Russia on new limits to U.S. missiles. But the new treaty also ensures limits on Russian missiles and prevents an imbalance in mutual deterrence that would be created by the growth of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the potential of the new missile shield in Eastern Europe and continuity in the number of Russian missiles.

The administration’s compromise on the UN’s Iranian-sanctions resolution was hardly capitulation. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has veto power over any resolution, so passage of any measure requires compromise with both Russia and China. If not for NATO expansion, China might now be left alone to threaten such vetoes and thus be more amenable to more stringent sanctions. But in expanding NATO without Russia, the United States lost a truly powerful potential ally in return for European security against a nonexistent threat, the power of the Latvian air force and democratization of countries that were determined to become democracies anyway.

On Syria, Romney is wrong in asserting that Russia has not cooperated. In early February and again recently in Moscow, Russia signed off on two UN resolutions on the Syrian crisis, including Kofi Annan’s peace plan. True, Russia continues to sell arms to Syria (where Moscow also has a naval base), just as the United States continues to sell arms to numerous equally repressive Arab regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Bahrain (where the United States also has a naval base), the government also brutally put down an uprising with Saudi assistance. Washington does not approve of these regimes or their methods but is often forced to do business with them in the real, albeit cruel, world of international politics.

The list of direct security threats is quite long—Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Islamism and perhaps China—but it does not include Russia. If the governor’s statements on Russia reflect his actual policy orientation—rather than a temporary political maneuver aimed at shoring up his right-wing credentials—then conservative realists concerned about U.S.-Russia policy should be worried.

Romney’s assertions on Russia might make for good election-year strategy, but they send a very bad signal on the future of U.S policy toward Russia. If Governor Romney receives the nomination, I will vote for him. But on Russia we will have to remain, well, political foes.

Gordon M. Hahn is a nonresident senior associate for the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as well as a senior researcher at the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, a visiting assistant professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.

Image: Gage Skidmore