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Analysis & Opinion
24.10.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Waiting For Obama
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Ivanov, Edward Lozansky

McCain’s chances of winning the presidency have been significantly reduced by the unfolding financial crisis and by his inability to reassure voters that he could provide the calm and steady leadership needed to solve the mounting economic problems.

Moscow would not be sorry to see McCain lose the election. With all of his criticism of Vladimir Putin’s policies and with all his support for Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili, McCain has long become a persona non-grata for the Kremlin, and constructive engagement with a McCain administration now seems like somewhat of an oxymoron.

On the contrary, Obama is viewed much more favorably in Moscow as someone the Kremlin could form a new relationship with from scratch. Although Moscow views some of Obama’s foreign policy advisors with apprehension and dismay (Richard Holbrook or Mark Brzezinski, for example), it is a widely-held belief here that the Obama administration would be pragmatic and constructive in engaging Russia.

President Dmitry Medvedev and his advisors are disappointed and angry with the George Bush administration both over Georgia and over the dismal failure to deal with the financial crisis that now threatens to undo Russia’s impressive economic growth of the last decade.

Moscow now sees the United States as a country in a state of blight. The financial crisis has destroyed the American leadership, and Russia now sees an opportunity to assert its power and leadership on the world stage. The hope here is that Obama would seek Russia’s help and cooperation as an equal partner on a wide variety of international issues to deal with global challenges, and that Obama would retain the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is greatly respected in Moscow due to his moderating influence in the conflict with Georgia.

But are such hopes justified? Will the United States-Russia relationship take a turn for the better under an Obama administration? Will the democrats be more willing to listen to Moscow’s arguments and take Russia’s interests seriously? On what issues will the Obama administration engage Russia more constructively? And will there be areas of confrontation that might derail the relationship? Are Russia’s hopes for a diminishing U.S. influence in world affairs justified? Or will Obama make the United States an attractive world leader again, after years of decline under Bush?

Eugene Ivanov, Innovation Program Manager at InnoCentive, Boston:

Vladimir Frolov, writes that “…democrat Sen. Barack Obama’s…ten to twelve point lead over republican Sen. John McCain is becoming insurmountable.” I wish I were as sure as Vladimir.

McCain’s poll numbers went up recently after he challenged Obama on taxes during their last presidential debate. The next few days will be critical to see whether this “surge” is just a fluke or, rather, the beginning of an improbable comeback.

As the John McCain-Sarah Palin tandem intensifies its attacks on Obama, questioning his character and “Americanism,” it seems to be prudent to recall the so-called Bradley Effect.

In 1982, the Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, ran for California governorship against a white opponent. The frontrunner in all opinion polls until the very last day, Bradley nevertheless lost the election. Since then, the Bradley Effect refers to voter preferences based upon racial prejudice toward a candidate, a prejudice that voters would not admit to a pollster, but then express in the privacy of a voting booth.

The question therefore is about how big the Bradley Effect is this election season. If it’s four to five percent, then Obama is fine. If it’s nine, as it was in 1982 in California, then he might be in trouble.

As for the implications for Russia's policies toward the United States—wait for Obama, but have a contingency plan for McCain.
I, too, believe that McCain will be a disaster for the future of U.S.-Russian relations. The only “positive” (for the Kremlin) aspect of a McCain presidency could be that his stern anti-Russian position will further alienate some major European powers (Germany, France, Italy, and Spain), paving the way for Moscow to widen the trans-Atlantic split.

Youthful and carrying no Cold War scars, Obama looks better; he should at least be able to build a working relationship with the equally youthful and intellectual Medvedev. Besides, Obama went on record promising to work closely with Russia on nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation. His tough words against Russia’s actions in Georgia should not be taken too seriously, as any words uttered by a politician in the heat of an election campaign.

My only problem with the above analysis is that Russia seems to be making, time and again, the same mistake. It isn’t simply trying to adjust its policies to the identity of the next American president; rather, it’s guessing this identity in order to build policies around it.

The Russian obsession with personalities has deep historical, cultural and political roots. It might be difficult for a Russian official to even imagine that important foreign policy decisions can come from anyone but a “Boss.” The truth, however, is that in the United States, it's not the president who defines the policy toward Russia (or any other country, for that matter). These policies -- unless in exceptional cases such as Iraq or Iran -- are designed by mid-level officials in the State Department or the National Security Council, whose decisions are heavily influenced by special interests, including ethnic lobbies (as a side note: there are various anti-Russian lobbies in Washington, but there is no pro-Russian lobby).

The good news for Moscow is that the next president, even if it is McCain, won't make things much worse than they are now. The bad news is that even the "good" president Obama will be too busy attending to other, more pressing issues to have time for a conscientious effort to "improve" relations with Russia. This job will be relegated to a host of “Russia” advisors, which doesn’t inspire too much optimism.

What is to be done, then? First, the Russian political elites should realize that no one sits in the Oval Office for more than eight years. The United States-Russia dialog must become immune from the ups and downs of personal feelings between the respective presidents, and has to instead rely on a carefully-crafted web of mutual dependencies.

Secondly, Russia should finally become pro-active in its dealings with the United States. The economic crisis and two wars will deprive the next president of his ability to focus on anything else. It will be president Medvedev’s job to establish the agenda for U.S.-Russian cooperation. The "U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration," a document signed by Bush and Putin in April, would be a great place to start selecting specific topics.

Nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation (including prevention of nuclear terrorism) appear to be the most non-confrontational and mutually agreeable subjects. Besides, such an agenda will be likely supported by the U.S.

military leadership, such as the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, if he stays on, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. However, the Kremlin should make it clear to the White House that Russia’s cooperation on more controversial issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program, will require a “pay back.” The repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment and the Congressional ratification of the so-called 123 Agreement could be examples of what Russia will demand in return for addressing American concerns.

Only a month ago, it looked like the next United States-Russia summit was in a distant future. Now, an emergency meeting of the world’s leaders in Washington is planned for November 15. There, president Medvedev may get a chance to present a package of proposals to his future American counterpart, whether his name is Barack or John.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:

For the purposes of disclosure, I am looking forward to an Obama administration for both foreign policy and domestic reasons. I think that generational change is needed both in Russia and in the United States.

Prime minister Putin and the senior officials in the Russian foreign policy establishment have a world view that is frozen in the past (much like Sen. McCain and the persons who tend to form his national security brain trust). Russia's fate depends on Russia becoming a country based on the rule of law that honors its international obligations to foreign states and protects the rights of Russian citizens as set forth in the country's constitution.

Indeed, it is frightening to learn, as I had today, of a contest being held in Russia to name the greatest Russians in the country's history. That Alexander II, Andrei Sakharov and Leo Tolstoy were not among the top ten nominees is a real disappointment—it reflects the fact that aggressive nationalists are considered by the respondents to be the greatest Russians.

Had Alexander II not been assassinated, he would probably have brought a constitutional monarchy to Russia -- his decision to emancipate the serfs puts him in the “Abraham Lincoln” category. Andrei Sakharov is rightfully placed in the same group of people promoting non-violent change as Martin Luther King, Jr. Leo Tolstoy's writings are read throughout the world and his values are praised. These are the type of individuals who deserve our respect, not (ironically) the Georgian Joseph Stalin, who killed more people than Adolf Hitler.

The Soviet Union has often found it easier to deal with U.S. Presidents who were republican and not democrats. It is always dangerous to generalize, but the Republican Party has traditionally (with the exceptions of Dwight Eisenhower and the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt) been part of big business, which cares primarily about making money -- most easily done when there is political stability, irrespective of the reasons behind it.

U.S.-Russian relations are the result of a dynamic process. Who thought Ronald Reagan would come to respect Mikhail Gorbachev? Jimmy Carter was one of the most humane individuals to occupy the White House, and someone who was circumspect in the use of armed force abroad. His interest in human rights and his desire to see the Helsinki Agreements honored created a problem for the occupants of the Kremlin. President Carter's willingness to arm the Afghan guerrillas against the Soviet Army shows that party affiliation is not determinative of complex phenomena.

Barak Obama is an opportunity for a fresh start in U.S.-Russian relations, but Russia needs to act in a manner that demonstrates its pursuit of peaceful goals abroad, and treats its citizens fairly at home. It remains to be seen if Obama can fulfill his promise. Similarly, Russia is in need of change. Unfortunately, it seems that those who do understand the interdependence of the world economic and political systems today do not exercise power in the country. Let's hope that the crisis in the global economy will produce new thinking among the Russian elite.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

Less than two weeks before the presidential election all indicators point to a landslide or a near-landslide victory for Obama. There is always a chance for last minute surprises, but miracles are rare occurrences. I think the main reason for McCain’s most likely defeat is this: too many influential groups within his own Republican party never regarded him as the best choice available.

We are not talking only about hard-core conservatives, the far right and the Christian right. Even moderates, such as the hugely admired former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, have turned away from McCain. Powell said that he was dismayed by the tone of McCain’s campaign and not quite thrilled by his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin for a running mate – and who could blame the general but the most ardent Sarah Barracuda fans?

Powell’s endorsement of Obama offered great relief to me personally, since I always considered myself to be a loyal republican who not only always voted for GOP candidates, but even formed the “Russians for Reagan” and Russians for the two Bushes and Dole groups. I was definitely not going to put together a similar group for McCain, since I believe that his misguided rhetoric on Russia is harmful to U.S. interests and dangerous to the world. Being in the same company with Powell definitely eases the pricks of my republican conscience.

As for Obama, I am sure his election will be most welcome in Europe and in the rest of the world, and will definitely help improve relations with our allies and America’s image in general. However, when it comes to U.S.–Russian relations, one should not expect any drastic changes for the better, unless Obama thoroughly overhauls his foreign policy team. The current line of his official and self-proclaimed advisors on Russia is as bad as McCain’s; in some respects, even worse.

His Vice President Joe Biden is not much better on Russia than Sarah Palin. Besides lobbying for providing one billion dollars to his good friend President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia in the middle of a huge financial crisis, Biden is known for blocking the lifting of the Jackson-Vanik amendment unless Moscow guarantees large purchases of American chicken meat. I have always naively assumed that the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade law was about free emigration from what was then the Soviet Union. Now, the evil empire has been gone for 17 years, and Russia freely permits emigration to whosoever asks for it without any restrictions. But the Jackson-Vanik amendment lives on. I wonder what Henry Scoop Jackson and Charles Vanik, who co-authored that amendment, would have to say about this chicken-meat approach to human rights issues. This outdated obstacle to trade engenders resentment in Russia, blocks its admission to the WTO, and harms U.S. economic and diplomatic ties with that country.

Before making any long-term projections, we will have to see who Obama’s choice will be for Secretary of State and for National Security Advisor. There is a long list of knowledgeable and respected professionals who can do an excellent job. That list would include Gen. Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former U.S.

Ambassador to Moscow and now Undersecretary of State William Burns, Head of the Russian and Eurasian Programs at CSIS Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Carnegie office in Moscow Rose Gottemoeller, and quite a few others. I’d also advise Obama to create an informal Kitchen Cabinet, similar to Ronald Reagan’s, with people of the types like James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Chuck Hagel, just to name a few.

Making up such lists is quite an enjoyable occupation, but somehow I am not too sanguine about Obama’s future selections. As for the present, he is clearly surrounded by people who may yet make the Kremlin feel nostalgic for the good old days of the Bush administration.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

I'm afraid that Frolov and his fellow Russian crystal-ball gazers have fallen into a trap of wishful thinking. Just as American notions about Russia are often quite misinformed, so is the Russian understanding of America no less (if not more) uninformed. Such thinking reflects the human tendency to see and hear what you want to see and hear.

While I personally think McCain has expressed a better understanding of what the current Russian regime is, he is unlikely to be elected. But Moscow's belief that Obama will accept Moscow's terms of what constitutes pragmatism, an adjustment to weakened U.S. power by allowing Russia to fill the breach, is quite grievously misinformed.

Obama and his advisors are, if anything, likely to push the democracy promotion agenda inside Russia much more heavily than Bush, who simply ignored the issue for all his talk about the subject in the Middle East. Secondly, they will not acquiesce in a Russian sphere of influence in the CIS that functions the way Moscow wants it to, i.e. no NATO enlargement, energy monopolies for Russia, and an exclusive zone of influence.

While both candidates will support a START II treaty with real verification procedures, Obama will not (and quite rightly) support the idea of a league of democracies that excludes Russia as we seek arms control progress with it. As for Secretary Gates, he seems to have closed the door to staying on himself.

The problem with Frolov's approach is that it, like the Bush team's approach, ignores how America contributed to its own dismal standing with Moscow. Moscow may believe that the United States is alone responsible for the global economic crisis (forgetting that other foreign banks were no less greedy and culpable and that if anything, the U.S. government has reacted further and faster than most European ones did).

But that would ignore the misguided economic policies of the Putin-Medvedev regime, with their return to state controls, a misguided notion of autarchy, refusal to invest in infrastructure or human capital, and the use of energy reserves for political rather than sound economic purposes. Neither is Washington responsible for Putin's decisions in 2005 to inflate the Russian economy. It is not Washington's fault that Putin’s economic and political structure is the traditional neo-Tsarist patrimonial system that has long since displayed its inherent sub-optimality and inherently inflationary tendencies (much like its Soviet predecessor).

Inasmuch as this crisis is homegrown as it is externally driven, it is likely to be protracted and will severely reduce Russia's ability to play or to proclaim the new superpower role it has recently claimed for itself.

The Putin regime, like Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) in Inherit the Wind, may be the only government that can strut while sitting down. But such strutting, blaming of America for all problems, and misguided arrogance of power will avail it little in the current crisis and undermine its own efforts at reconciliation with the United States.

Undoubtedly, we will see progress on arms control. But I suspect little other progress will take place and Russia's democracy deficit will feature prominently in bilateral relations during an Obama administration.
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