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 appreciates GOP presidential candidate 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 reelection, Putin said, someone like Romney might come along in four years, and then Russia would regret it if it had given in on the U.S. missile defense project.
Romney’s characterization of Russia earlier this year as the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe caught the attention of Russian officials, and engendered scorn in the media. But Putin views the United States as Russia’s main adversary — that is, a competitor, not an enemy, as Georgy Mirsky, an expert on Russia’s Middle East policy, pointed out in a recent interview.
Putin may see where Romney is coming from. In the Russian presidential campaign last winter, he and his allies heaped abuse on the United States. They accused it of financing and leading political protests in Russia; organized groups that badgered U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul; and denounced U.S. intentions in Syria as well as what Russia considered an American double cross on Libya.
Russian officials are furious about Congress’s 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 the measure.)
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 a President Romney.
“We’ll work with whoever gets elected as president by the American people,” he said. But Putin has shown time and again that he distrusts and resists change, especially on the world stage. Although he and Obama have tussled over Middle East intervention, human rights and missile defense, they have staked out their ground clearly, and Obama promises the sort of continuity that Putin values.
Putin also believes that 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 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, helped the United States maintain a supply route to Afghanistan, and cooperated on Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has helped Russia join the World Trade Organization — although from the Russian point of view, that may help American businesses more than Russian ones. But otherwise, in Putin’s telling, the United States 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 Saturday in the Black Sea resort of Yalta, Russian officials were eager to take shots at the GOP candidate. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said a Romney win could launch a new arms race. “We may have to enlarge the defense budget,” he said — although big increases are already planned.
German Gref, the head of Sberbank, asked, according to the Interfax news agency, “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 Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his 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 approved of Obama’s handling of relations with Russia and of the way he deals with the fight against international terrorism. Fewer supported 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 declined to answer. Asked whom they would vote for if they could, 27 percent of Russians chose Obama, as opposed to 12 percent who opted for Romney. (In France, the split was 89 percent to 2 percent.)
Nineteen percent of Russians said that American leadership in world affairs is desirable.