Russia: Friend or Foe?

Russia: Friend or Foe?

Romney and Obama take very different approaches to Washington's relationship with Moscow.

In last week's foreign-policy debate, while many countries and regions were left unmentioned, Russia was invoked ten times.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney defended his assertion that Russia is America’s “number-one geopolitical foe.” He added, “I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.”

President Obama, whose administration considers the “reset” of relations with Russia one of its signature foreign-policy successes, accused Romney of being stuck in the Cold War mentality of the 1980s.

Is Russia friend or foe? The answer, as with most foreign-policy issues, is a little of both. More fundamentally, in a world full of serious challenges, does Russia deserve to be so singled out?

Russia is undeniably large and important, and it often acts as a significant spoiler on the global stage. But certainly it no longer ranks among the top foreign-policy priorities or problems for the United States.

Russia occupies a lot of space, but much of it is frozen tundra, and it is only the world’s ninth most populous nation. It has significant mineral and energy resources and is a major producer of oil and natural gas, but it will require massive new investments to extract new reserves. Russia also maintains a sizeable military force and possesses a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons, but its military is weakened and in need of modernization. Russia's economy is also sputtering, and its long-term challenges include a shrinking workforce, population decline, high levels of corruption and poor infrastructure.

Russia has several important international levers that it uses to its advantage. It is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—which comes with a valuable veto that it has used recently to block action in Syria—and it is a member of several other important multilateral groups. It also is located near several countries of interest to the United States, including China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

On the “friend” side, defenders of the reset point to the ratification of the New START Treaty that reduces nuclear arms, agreement on tough sanctions on Iran and cooperation on key supply routes to Afghanistan. Although relations are not warm, they have generally been productive since the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.

On the “foe” side, critics say that Russia stands in the way of stronger action against Iran and intervention in Syria, and that the United States should more aggressively confront Moscow on its poor record on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Romney has been careful to clarify that he does not consider Russia a threat per se, but his forceful rhetoric may actually harden Russia’s stance. Indeed, Russian president Putin said that the “geopolitical foe” label makes Russia feel justified in opposing America's missile-defense plans in Europe and that Russia’s resolve to oppose the system is now strengthened.

But Romney’s tough language may be driven less by geopolitical concerns than by domestic calculations. A strong stance on Russia plays well with a segment of the American electorate, particularly the Eastern and Central European populations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And his strategists may hope that a firm line on Russia will remind nostalgic voters of a bygone era when the United States was an indisputable leader with a clearly defined enemy.

In the next four years and beyond, however, there are many areas where the United States will have to cooperate with Russia. In addition to arms control and turmoil in the Middle East, the two countries will need to work together on several important global-security issues, including terrorism, drugs and arms trafficking, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The United States faces many serious international challenges, and Russia should not be placed at the top of the list. While the jury may still be out on whether it is friend or foe, it is not number one in either category.

Anya Schmemann directs the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.