MOSCOW — Soviet leaders used to prefer Republicans to Democrats, in the belief that Republicans were tough but more sincere and, once they made a promise, were more likely to deliver on it.
There has been a whiff of that old way of thinking in recent remarks by President Vladimir Putin, even though plenty has changed in Russia’s relations with the United States. Speaking to reporters last week, Putin said he appreciated Mitt Romney’s bluntness in his denunciations of Russia — because that stance lets Russia know where it stands, and reinforces Putin’s opposition to a missile defense shield in Europe.
Sarcastic? Maybe just a bit.
“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,” Putin said after a meeting with Serbia’s president.
“We will be oriented toward pluses, not minuses,” Putin said. “And I am actually very grateful to him for formulating his position in a straightforward manner.”
Putin has also praised President Obama for his sincerity, with seemingly less spin. But even if Obama should win this year, Putin said, someone like Romney might come along in another four years, and Russia would regret it if Moscow had given in on the American missile defense project.
Romney’s characterization of Russia earlier this year as America’s Number One geopolitical foe caught the attention of Russian officials, and engendered plenty of scorn in the press. But Putin himself sees the United States as Russia’s main adversary — that is, a competitor, not an enemy, as Georgy Mirsky, an expert on Russia’s Mideast policy, pointed out in a recent interview.
Putin, in his own way, may see where Romney is coming from. In the Russian presidential election campaign last winter, he and his allies heaped abuse on the United States. They accused it of financing and leading the political protests, organized groups that hounded and badgered U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, and denounced U.S. intentions in Syria as well as what Russia saw as an American double-cross on Libya.
Russian officials are furious at the Magnitsky Bill — which would impose visa and financial sanctions on identified human-rights abusers in Russia — and have promised to retaliate if it becomes law. (The White House has resisted it.)
How much of this is rhetoric designed for public consumption is difficult to judge, in either country — but in an interview with the RT television channel Putin presented himself as someone who would be able to deal with President Romney if it comes to that.
“We’ll work with whoever gets elected as president by the American people,” he said.
But he has also shown time and again that he distrusts and resists change, especially on the world stage. Though he and President Obama have tussled over Mideast intervention, human rights and missile defense, they have staked out their ground clearly, and Obama at least promises the sort of continuity that Putin values.
Putin also believes he has a remaining debt to collect from Obama. In the much-debated “reset” in relations, in Moscow’s view, Russia has agreed to the New Start treaty, helped the United States maintain a supply route to Afghanistan, and been cooperative on Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has helped Russia join the World Trade Organization – though from the Russian point of view that may help American businesses more than Russian ones. But otherwise, in Putin’s telling, America hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain, not on missile defense or on the Middle East.
And that debt would presumably become uncollectable with a Romney victory.
At a conference in the Black Sea resort of Yalta on Saturday, Russian officials were eager to take shots at the Republican candidate.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said a Romney win could launch a news arms race. “We may have to enlarge the defense budget,” he said — though in fact big increases are already planned.
The head of Sberbank, German Gref, asked, according to the Interfax news service, “How is it possible to cooperate when the prospective leader tags a country as an adversary?”
Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert with a good understanding of the Kremlin’s position, argued in a recent essay that Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as running mate created a slate with no foreign policy experience. Even for a country with little interest in the world it dominates, he wrote, this is an alarming development.
In the latest Transatlantic Trends poll, a sampling of European and American public opinion that was conducted by the German Marshall Fund, 38 percent of Russians said they approve of Obama’s handling of relations with Russia and of the way he conducts the fight against international terrorism. Fewer support him on Afghanistan and Iran. Overall, 36 percent of Russians had a favorable view of Obama; 59 percent said they had no opinion about Romney, or refused to answer.
Asked whom they would vote for if they could, 27 percent of Russian chose Obama, as opposed to 12 percent who opted for Romney. (In France, the split was 89 to 2.)
Nineteen percent of Russians said that American leadership in world affairs is desirable.