The Candidates and Russia

As expected, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected this week as the new president of the Russian Federation with 70% of the vote. These elections were little more than a democratic charade. The Kremlin manipulated the media, the party system, and the courts to ensure a stable transition within the country’s political elite.

The next president of the United States must respond to an increasingly autocratic Russia. So far, the candidates have not given much indication of what they might do. However, all of the candidates have referred to President Bush’s oft-quoted line of looking into Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s soul. Although widely criticized today, Bush’s words expressed a desire to move past the Cold War mentality and to work constructively with Russia on international issues.

Frequently, the foundation for good bilateral relations is a healthy relationship between leaders, and Mr. Bush’s comment has been unfortunately exploited for political gain. However, Mr. Bush never followed up on these words. His policy on Russia has been characterized by deteriorating relations over the war in Iraq, NATO expansion, a missile defense shield, and Kosovo.

Looking into the Russian Eye

The presidential candidates have all been tempted to embrace a new cold war with Russia. Senator McCain seems to support the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship. “I know Mr. Putin,” he has said. “I’ve looked into his eyes, and I saw three letters — KGB.”

Senator Clinton, in a possible attempt to outdo her colleague from Arizona, stated: “This is the president that looked into the soul of Putin, I could have told him, he was a KGB agent, by definition he doesn’t have a soul, I mean this is a waste of time, right, this is nonsense.” Senator Clinton appears to have willfully ignored the advice of Madeleine Albright, one of her top foreign policy advisers, who has said that you must be careful how you choose your words because of how they will be interpreted abroad. Indeed, when President Putin was recently questioned about Senator Clinton’s assertion that he lacks a soul, he responded: “At a minimum, a head of state should have a head.”

Senator Obama came dangerously close to repeating the same mistake during the debate in Cleveland last week when he began to answer a question about Russia by also invoking President Bush’s statement on Putin’s soul. Senator Obama adroitly proceeded, however, by pointing out that Bush’s failure was not in looking into Mr. Putin’s soul but in refusing to do the diplomatic legwork to establish a meaningful dialogue. According to Senator Obama, this refusal led to our current difficulties: “And so we did not send a signal to Mr. Putin that, in fact, we were going to be serious about issues like human rights, issues like international cooperation that were critical to us.”

An Obama Alternative?

Encouraging dialogue is a hallmark of Senator Obama’s perspective on American foreign policy. Accordingly, he has been the most outspoken candidate on working together with Russia to drastically reduce the two powers’ nuclear stockpiles. This vision of nuclear abolition, which Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev nearly negotiated at Reykjavik in 1986, has more recently been supported by luminaries of both parties including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn. Senator Obama has traveled to Russia with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) to advance the goals of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and authored legislation with Lugar subsequent to their visit to control the spread of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.

Senator Obama has also suggested a full evaluation of the benefits of a missile defense system before rushing toward deployment. Although he has not stated opposition to the program in principle, he appears sensitive to concerns about this program among our Western European allies. Senator Obama’s top Russian adviser, Michael McFaul, is well respected for his scholarship on democratization, and U.S.-Russian relations, in particular. True, McFaul was excessively optimistic in his assessment of Putin in 2000 and more recently has come under criticism for attacking Putin with too much vigor while sparing Yeltsin. Nevertheless, the bulk of McFaul’s work exhibits a deep and nuanced insight into the complicated nature of Russian politics and society.

Senator Clinton has also expressed a desire to achieve a joint reduction of nuclear weapons with Russia. But she has supported the missile shield program. Senator McCain has been vocal concerning proliferation to non-nuclear states, but has not discussed cooperation with Russia. Senator McCain voted against ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1999, a treaty that was ratified by Russia and all of our European allies. McCain’s support for missile defense is unequivocal. He has said, “I don’t care what [Putin’s] objections are to it.”

The time is ripe for a renewal of U.S.-Russian relations. The tone of President Putin’s handpicked successor – Dmitry Medvedev – is much less confrontational than his mentor. And, despite genuine differences, there are many areas of intersection. Russia stands to lose as much from terrorism and geopolitical instability in the Middle East as America does. Both Medvedev and Obama are young, former law professors. If elected, perhaps they can move past the Cold War rhetoric and build a constructive relationship around shared principles.

Erik Christensen is co-editor-in-chief of the Stanford Journal of International Law. William Partlett has a doctorate in Soviet history. They are both law students at Stanford University and contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).