As election eve in the United States approaches, Moscow is hoping for a return of the incumbent.
During a recent meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a forum for exchanging views on Russia, at least three senior Russian officials announced that the U.S. president’s reelection would be good for Russia. This is hardly surprising. Russians respect and get along with power. They know what is good for their country. Some among the elites believe that they can eat America’s lunch. Ergo, Obama is good for Russia.
Russians recognize and respect power. President Vladimir Putin developed an excellent relationship with the outgoing Chinese leadership. Until recently he was buddies with the Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, and is a good friend of the former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. Unlike Obama, he gets along with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former deputy commander of an elite commando unit and by definition a tough guy.
Yet, many times, and in different quarters in Moscow, Russians characterized the current U.S. president as a well-meaning leader who is somewhat weak and naive. While Russians view past Republican presidents as hard-nosed realists, they had their share of troubles with well-meaning Democrats. Kennedy had his Cuban missile crisis; Carter, his Afghanistan invasion; and Obama, his “reset” policy. Every time the Russians perceived a weakness in a Democrat president, they made a move—even though later they may have come to regret it.
The rub is in Russia’s view of its own national interest and assessment of a U.S. president’s weakness, real or imagined. Under Obama’s “reset” policy, Russia got what it wanted: a START ballistic missile reduction agreement that benefited Moscow; U.S. prolonged involvement in Afghanistan, where Americans are killing those who may threaten Russia’s allies and its own soft underbelly; the de-facto recognition of Russia’s “sphere of exclusive interests” in the former Soviet Union, and a much-coveted membership in the World Trade Organization.
Washington responded meekly to increased domestic crackdown against political opposition and foreign-funded NGOs. As I wrote recently in The New York Times, Putin is building his “fortress Russia” with barely a squeak of protest from Washington.
Vladimir Putin minced no words as to why he does not want Republican challenger Mitt Romney to be elected, while opening door for a dialogue with the possible Republican administration:
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… We will be oriented toward pluses, not minuses… And I am actually very grateful to him for formulating his position in a straightforward manner... We’ll work with whoever gets elected as president by the American people.
Putin used Romney’s tough rhetoric on Russia to justify opposition to American missile defense:
I'm grateful to [Romney] for formulating his stance so clearly, because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems… The most important thing for us is that even if he doesn't win now, he or a person with similar views may come to power in four years. We must take that into consideration while dealing with security issues for a long perspective.
Putin’s view is shared by a vast majority of Russians, who in a recent poll by the respected Levada Center said that Barack Obama’s re-election would better serve Russia’s national interests. On the other hand, Russians believe Romney’s election would not be in Russia’s interests. The Romney campaign may be grateful that Russians do not vote in U.S. elections.
In a nationwide poll that tracked Russians’ political attitudes, 41 percent of respondents said they would like to see President Obama reelected. Just 8 percent expressed a preference for Romney. Interestingly enough, a majority of Russian women support Romney for reasons we can only speculate about.
What do the Russians want? The answer is simple: internationally, to dilute America’s global clout, at least to the point where Moscow can exercise a veto power (through the UN Security Council or by other means) on significant foreign policy decisions around the world. Exhibit A: the Russian veto over Syria. Then there were the regrets over the Libya abstention.
Russia also wants to prevent the United States from building missile defense while enhancing its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union.
Finally, the Kremlin wants stability at home, preventing the opposition from seriously challenging the current ruling elite’s grip on power and maintaining the tremendous wealth of the largest country on the planet.
These are all significant Russian national interests—as defined by top Russian decisionmakers. They came to the conclusion that a second Obama term would serve them well. This is why—in contrast with the past, when Republicans were the favorites—the Kremlin wants four more years.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation. He has attended Valdai Club meetings since 2004.