The Year of the Snake: are US-Russia relations entering a new Ice Age?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

In December 2012, Kommersant daily reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was presented with a new concept of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, which had been prepared at his request by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The document, which is yet to be made public, is expected to lay out Russia’s international agenda for Putin’s third presidential term. According to Kommersant, Russia’s major foreign policy objective will be economic and political integration in the post-Soviet space, with the Eurasian Union proposed by Putin a few months ago serving as the principal “glue” for such integration. Second on the list of priorities was Russia’s relations with the European Union. Russia’s relations with the United States came third. As reportedly stated in the concept, Russia will be insisting that the U.S. provided “formal legal guarantees that the planned missile defense system will not be targeted against Russian nuclear defenses” and that the U.S. “not meddle into domestic affairs of other countries.”

It is fair to say that U.S.-Russia relations enter 2013, the Year of the Snake, in a state of deep uncertainty. On the one hand, the re-election of Barack Obama to the second term as U.S. president would seem to promise a healthy dose of predictability in the bilateral relationship. Russia too was visibly pleased with the news that the all-important position of U.S. Secretary of State has been offered to Sen. John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), a seasoned foreign policy expert and someone Moscow thinks it can do business with. Although Kerry still faces Senate hearings, he is widely expected to be confirmed.

On the other hand, the end of 2012 was marred by U.S. Congress’ passing the Magnitsky Act, an amendment to a trade law that bans entry to the U.S. and freezes financial assets there of Russian officials suspected in human rights violations.

In response to the Magnitsky Act, which Moscow considers blatantly anti-Russian, Russia’s parliament promptly passed the Federal Law 272, named after a Russian toddler, Dima Yakovlev, who was adopted by American parents and later died in a tragic accident. At its core, the Dima Yakovlev law mirrors the Magnitsky Act by banning entry to Russia of Americans responsible for the violation of human rights of Russian citizens. Yet the Russian lawmakers added two provisions that made the law much more than a purely “symmetric” retaliation. First, they made illegal U.S. funding of Russian NGOs allegedly engaged in “political activities.” Second, in a highly controversial move, they put immediate stop to the adoption of Russian orphans by American families.

There is no doubt that both laws will have a chilling effect on U.S.-Russia relations in 2013 and beyond. Yet there is one significant difference between the two pieces of legislation. The adoption of the of the Magnitsky Act reflects the presence of a strong anti-Russian lobby in U.S. Congress eager to have some type of “leverage” against Russia now that the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment has been finally repealed. At the same time, the White House opposes the Magnitsky Act and has enough tools at its disposal to mitigate its consequences. In contrast, the Dima Yakovlev law has full support at every level of Russian government: it was reportedly initiated in the presidential administration (deputy head of the administration Vyacheslav Volodin was named as the principal driving force behind the law) and it was backed by all political forces represented in the State Duma and Federation Council. Characteristically, Putin expressed his support for the bill well before he saw it.

The adoption of Federal Law 272 therefore serves as an unfortunate indication that the anti-American campaign initiated by Putin a year ago was not meant to be a short-term election tool. In fact, anti-Americanism is rapidly becoming the mainstream of Russia’s foreign policy discourse. Having finally recognized the amount of damage Putin’s return to the Kremlin has caused to Russia’s reputation in the world, Russian political elites have concluded that they had nothing to gain from improvement in U.S.-Russia relations. Rather, they seem to believe that the continued propagation of the “enemy at the gates” image will better serve their needs by slowing down the erosion of public support for the regime.

Nor could the Kremlin miss the fact that its domestic critics by and large supported the Magnitsky Act and opposed the Dima Yakovlev law. This gives the Kremlin an additional reason to toughen Russia’s stance vis-à-vis the United States: the worse Russia’s relations with the U.S., the easier it for the Kremlin to paint the opposition as “paid foreign agents.”

An Ice Age in U.S.-Russia relations might seem as a small price for the Kremlin to pay for maintaining the proverbial stability it is so keen about. There is, however, a profound danger in this approach. The “bunker mentality” characterizing Moscow’s current attitude toward Washington may rapidly spread, as a metastasis, to other aspects of Russia’s foreign policy. Should this happen, no single objective articulated in the new foreign policy concept will be achieved.

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Was the Magnitsky Act Inevitable?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

In the closing days of the year, all the attention has suddenly turned on Russian parliamentarians: ignoring the distractions of the looming holiday break, they produced a “symmetric” response to the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act, adopted by the U.S. Congress just a few weeks ago, will ban entry in the United States and freeze financial assets there of Russian officials suspected of human rights violations. In an attempt to punish the United States for the act, which Moscow considers blatantly anti-Russian, the State Duma developed a piece of legislation of its own: the so-called Dima Yakovlev law named after a Russian boy who was adopted by an American family and later died as a result of a tragic accident.

Similar to the Magnitsky Act, the Dima Yakovlev law will ban entry into the country of Americans responsible for the violation of rights of Russian citizens; it will also make it illegal for non-profit organizations engaged in “political activities” to accept funding from U.S. citizens. Yet the most controversial provision of the Dima Yakovlev law is to ban the adoption of Russian children by American parents. Passed by the Duma on Dec.21, the law was approved by the Federation Council on Dec. 26; Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the law on Dec. 28.

The appearance of the Dima Yakovlev law resulted in a tsunami of public protests, the scale and strength of which surprised everyone, including, perhaps, the Russian lawmakers themselves. The major argument put forward by the critics has been that the implementation of the law will predominantly harm the interests of Russian orphans, especially those with disabilities, which, while being morally wrong, may also place Russia in violation of a number of its international obligations. Russian daily Novaya Gazeta reported that its website collected more than 100,000 signatures calling on the Duma to repeal the law. Joining the ranks of those opposed to the law were prominent members of Russia’s political establishment, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Minister of Education Dmitry Livanov.

Curiously enough, in the heat of the argument over the appropriateness of Russia’s response to the Magnitsky Act, the act itself was all but forgotten. This is unfortunate as Russia must learn a few important lessons from the whole Magnitsky affair. The most important is that the adoption of the Magnitsky Act by U.S. Congress was not inevitable. When the former boss of Sergei Magnitsky, British citizen Bill Browder, outlined the idea of a Magnitsky bill, it was met with significant skepticism on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the Obama administration from the very beginning expressed its opposition to the bill. But Browder persisted and kept lobbying for the bill. And what did Moscow do in response? Nothing. Apparently considering Browder too irrelevant to pay attention, Moscow watched quietly while the Magnitsky bill gradually strengthened. And yet the only thing Moscow had to do to kill the bill in its cradle was to clearly articulate something that has been long known: that Browder and Magnitsky were suspected of committing serious financial crimes. True, in the summer of 2012, a delegation from the Federation Council did arrive in Washington and try to make this point to American lawmakers. But it was too late: by that time, the sponsors of the Magnitsky Act in U.S. Congress were so heavily invested in this project that it was simply politically impossible for them to change their positions.

It is also worth noting that in his lobbying crusade, Browder was actively assisted by numerous anti-Russian groups, including those organized by the members of the Russian diaspora in the U.S. Meanwhile, the much needed and long-talked-about pro-Russian lobby in America still does not exist. Moscow stubbornly refuses to accept the rules by which the American political system operates and seems to believe that the only way to influence U.S. decision making vis-à-vis Russia is through presidential summits. The adoption of the Magnitsky Act is clear evidence that this approach is wrong: President Obama, while opposing the Act, could not spend his political capital on “fixing” things for the Kremlin. Moreover, if Moscow will not change its attitude—that is, will not begin actively promoting its interests in Western countries, additional anti-Russian acts will follow.

The Magnitsky Act itself has no real significance: the figures on the Magnitsky list are unlikely to apply for American visas and they had plenty of time to liquidate their assets in the U.S. (in case they ever had them). The problem for Moscow is that the adoption of the Magnitsky Act will serve as a trigger that will set in motion the appearance of similar laws all over the European Union. Should this happen – and this seems to be already happening – Russia may kiss goodbye the visa-free travel agreement with EU it is so actively seeking.

As for a “symmetric” response to the Magnitsky Act, Russian parliamentarians would be better off to ban entry to Russia of all sponsors of the bill in the U.S. Congress: 39 Senators and 81 House representatives. Some of them occasionally travel in Russia on business, so such a ban will indeed affect them. Besides, U.S. congressmen have such an oversized ego that they will take close to heart any ban including their name. They will get the message.

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The Magnitsky Lesson

This piece originally appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda:

In the rush of the looming holiday season, Russia’s State Duma is hastily preparing the so-called Dima Yakovlev law, a “symmetric” response to the Magnitsky Act that has just been adopted by the U.S. Congress. The latter bill bans entry in the United States and freezes Americans assets of Russian officials suspected in human rights violations. Given Duma’s propensity for low quality legislation, one does not expect anything good from that. The question one must ask here is different, though: how come that the Magnitsky Act has been adopted in the first place? Why a British citizen Bill Browder was allowed to freely lobby in the U.S. Congress for a law named after a Russian citizen Sergei Magnitsky? Why did it take Russia almost three years to finally send to the United States a delegation, which articulated something that has been long known: that Browder and Magnitsky have committed serious financial crimes? And when the delegation arrived in Washington this past summer, what is it not clear to everyone that by that time, the American sponsors of the Magnitsky Act have so heavily invested in it that they simply could not be swayed in the other direction?

The answers to these questions are neither difficult nor new. In his lobbying crusade, Browder was actively assisted by the numerous anti-Russian groups, including those organized by the members of the Russian diaspora in the U.S. At the same time, the much needed and long talked about pro-Russian lobby in America still does not exist. Besides, Moscow itself has been arrogantly ignoring Browder as completely irrelevant; it rather preferred issuing vague promises of future “symmetric” responses. The outcome of this negligence has been exactly as expected. Moreover, if Moscow will not change its attitude—that is, will not begin actively promoting its interests in the West, new anti-Russian acts are inevitable. The American version of the Magnitsky Act will become but a first sample of a set of laws that will be adopted, one after another, by the European Union. Should this happen—and this seems to be already happening–Russian officials used to spending time and money in old good Europe will face unpleasant consequences.

Yet, if Duma wants to “symmetrically” respond to the Magnitsky Act, it should better ban entry to Russia to all sponsors of the bill in the U.S. Congress: 39 Senators and 81 House representatives. Much better than fighting poor orphans in its own country.

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However half-heartedly, Moscow welcomes Obama’s re-election

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

It’s over. The long and expensive, yet highly entertaining political show called the American presidential election campaign came to an end in the early hours of Nov. 7. By winning 50 percent of the popular vote nationwide and beating his Republican opponent, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, in eight of nine of the so-called swing states, the incumbent president Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term.

The in-depth analysis of the factors leading to Obama’s victory will keep pundits busy for the months to come. Some will argue that Obama was helped by Hurricane Sandy, which seemed to stop the momentum the Romney campaign acquired coming out of the presidential debates. Others will point to the release, just four days before the election, of the Labor Department’s unemployment report suggesting that the U.S. economy was on track to recovery, an argument the Obama administration has been making for the past couple of years. And there obviously will be those insisting that by being unable to provide substance to his job creation plan—and by failing to emotionally connect with the voters—Romney never had a real chance to win.

Curiously, while the Americans found themselves almost equally split between Obama and Romney, the rest of the world was almost openly cheering for the former. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. No one can doubt that as a mainstream U.S. politician, Obama puts American national interests above all other considerations. Yet, on many occasions he demonstrated a willingness to at least consider national interests of others countries, as long as they didn’t contradict America’s. This provides a clear contrast to Romney, who proudly promised to “never apologize” for U.S. actions and whose declared rules of engagement with other countries, with an exception of Israel, could be summarized by a popular idiom “my way or the highway.” For this reason alone, many foreign leaders would consider Obama as a more trustworthy and reliable interlocutor.

The foreign policy of the new Obama administration is unlikely to change in any profound way; yet, it would be premature to say that there won’t be any changes at all. Obama is a “domestic” president and as many other U.S. presidents with ambitious domestic agenda, he has little passion for global issues. In such circumstances, the U.S. foreign policy is often hijacked by the secretary of state (or sometimes by the National Security Advisor); there is every reason to believe that in the past two years, it’s been Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not the president himself, who was defining U.S. international priorities.

Clinton is going to step down in January, and until the identity of her replacement becomes known, the precise contours of the U.S. foreign policies will remain somewhat blurry. The leading candidate to succeed Clinton appears to be Sen. John Kerry, an experienced and competent chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With Kerry at the helm of the Department of State, one can expect a renewed U.S. involvement in “grand projects,” such as the peace process in the Middle East. At the same time, an emphasis on the global humanitarian issues, championed by Clinton, may subside.

Moscow welcomed Obama’s re-election. And it’s not because he has a lot of fans among the Russian political class. Russia’s policies toward the U.S. are perennially reactive: Moscow never takes the lead in its relations with Washington; rather, it prefers to respond to what Washington throws at it, be it a cold wind of confrontation blown by the Bush administration or a sunny “reset” offered by President Obama. In the eyes of the Russian leadership, Obama is a known quality, and the Kremlin finds it much more convenient to resume the already established relationship rather than spend the time and effort for developing a new one.

Although there seems to be a consensus among the Russian foreign policy establishment that the “reset” is dead, no attempts have been made so far to put forward a proactive, pro-Russian agenda for the Moscow-Washington dialog, at least at the official level. Apparently, the Kremlin is going to take a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of a new paradigm for U.S.-Russia relations emerging from the White House—and then assume the comfortable position of being able to either accept or reject this paradigm. While such an approach may well suit the lifestyle of Russian foreign policy apparatchiks, it’s hard to see how it will advance Russia’s vital national interests.

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A crisis to remember

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

I was eight when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. Believe it or not, I remember it well.  For a kid of my age, I was remarkably interested in politics, and reading newspapers and listening to the radio was an intrinsic part of my daily routine.

Of course, the full picture of what really happened in these 13 fateful days in October 1962 occurred to me much later, when I was an adult; besides, you could hardly expect getting a full picture from the Soviet propaganda of the time. But I do remember spirited reports praising brave Cubans and their charismatic leader Fidel Castro for standing up to the world’s worst “imperialist,” the United States of America. The reports were usually interspersed by energetic assurances that the Soviet Army was capable of defeating anyone who would dare to interrupt our peaceful movement towards Communism.

And then, I remember late-night kitchen conversations between my parents when I was supposed to be already asleep in my room. Speaking in a low voice so as not to wake me up, my mom was talked anxiously to my dad, asking him to explain what was going on. He, a quiet and thoughtful man, responded trying to sound calm and positive, not perhaps trusting his own words, as I now realize.

Finally, when the crisis was over, I vividly recall a cartoon on the first page of the daily newspaper Pravda. The cartoon depicted the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, as a captain of a ship with the steering wheel in hand. There was a compass in the middle of the wheel, with the compass’ needle pointing to the word “Peace.” I felt proud that I lived in a country that had preserved world peace.

The next time the Cuban Crisis had a personal touch upon my life was just a few years ago, when my family and I were already living in the U.S. For a high-school class in world history, my son decided to write about the Cuban Crisis. Happy about his choice of the topic, I volunteered to review a draft of the paper. Suddenly, my childhood memories of reading the Pravda newspaper were back.

In a straightforward manner that would bring tears of joy to the eyes of any seasoned Cold War warrior, my son told there narrative of a young, clever and perceptive American president who single-handedly outsmarted an old, moronic and clueless Russian leader. The conclusion of the paper was simple: there was a crisis; the Americans won, the Soviets lost.

I chose not to criticize my offspring’s opus. However, unable to restraint myself completely, I asked him a question: “Well, if the United States was allowed to have military bases next to the Soviet Union in Turkey, then why was the Soviet Union not allowed to have military bases in Cuba?” My son didn’t know the answer to this question: they hadn’t discussed this aspect of the conflict in his world history class.

A notable anniversary of every well-known crisis event provides all of us with the useful opportunity to re-consider its proper place in the grand scheme of human history. I leave it to the pundits to decide how many serious world crises were averted by the so-called Moscow-Washington hotline, a direct communications line established between the Kremlin and the White House in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I expect global security experts to weigh in on whether the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that proved its first worth during the Crisis, is still as valid today as it was in 1962.

But for me personally, the lessons of the Cuban Crisis could be summed up in three simple words: know thy enemy. When reading eyewitnesses’ accounts of the events of October 1962, I was struck by the level of ignorance both sides demonstrated with regards to the plans, intentions and mindsets of their respective opponents. Hopefully, things have improved since then: the famous hotline is likely to be regularly updated with the most sophisticated communication gadgets; modern spying technologies provide a clear picture of the military capabilities of the other side – and often of its plans as well; a small army of shrewd risk managers would come up with a plausible contingency for just about every risky scenario on a moment’s notice.

What else? Just a tiny bit: the leaders of both countries must listen to each other at least as attentively as they would listen to their home-grown hawks. With this happening too, the Cuban Missile Crisis will forever remain the only crisis of such a magnitude that we will commemorate, if not exactly celebrate, in the future.

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Conveying the message

They say that words account for only 7% of the message you convey. The remaining 93% is non-verbal, being transmitted through the tone of your voice and your body language. I wonder what would have happened if yesterday, during the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his GOP rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney I put my TV on mute and reacted only to “non-verbal” messages emanating from the debaters. I must say that my conclusion would be different from the one expressed by the majority of pundits and the media: Romney has not won the debate.

True, President Obama looked absent, bored and tired – exactly like a man who has something more important to do than debating a guy who over the past 6 years has made himself a professional presidential candidate. Yet Romney, with a pleading expression on his face and elevated shoulders betraying pressure, came out as a kid desperately trying to persuade his suspicious parents that he had done his home work and can now go to play. If this, according to some analysts, means looking “presidential,” then someone has to explain me what the job of U.S. president is all about.

Naturally, I didn’t mute my TV, so in addition to the body language messages of the debaters, I could also hear the tone of their voice. And if the sound of Obama’s could certainly put me to sleep, I would have been prevented from dozing off by the nuisance of Romney’s pitched, word-compressed mini-monologues begging: “Listen to me…listen to me…listen to me.”

And then, of course, there were words. I’m someone who’s interested in politics and comfortable with relevant economic numbers. I can understand (and remember on November 6) Obama’s assertion – whether correct or false – that in addition to existing $2 trillion tax cut, Romney wants to impose another one worth of $5 trillion. Bad for him. But I had troubles to follow Romney’s non-ending arithmetic exercises, like telling us for how long we could run Medicare for the money Obama wants to invest in clean energy. Sounded to me like how many oranges you can buy for the money you won’t spend on apples. Well, perhaps folks voting for Romney have a better grasp of math then me. Who knows.

No, I won’t insist that Obama has won the debate – or even that he did well. Yet I doubt that the lack of sleep, energy or motivation – or his reported hatred of debates in general – can account for his lackluster performance. I suspect he was simply stunned – I was – by the easy with which Romney has suddenly abandoned his conservative credentials and was positioning himself as someone who could do better what Obama has been already doing:  perfecting the health-care law, polishing Dodd-Frank and tightening “smart” government regulations. It’s not easy to debate a “better” yourself, is it?

During his political career, Obama has debated many people of different political shapes, shades and stripes. But this is perhaps for the first time that he met such an ideologically omnivorous opponent like Romney, a man who hardly remembers – his passion for numbers notwithstanding – how many times he invented and reinvented and then re-reinvented himself. It’s tough to hit a moving ideological target. Yet Obama has no other choice. Voters have lousy memory and on November 6, they won’t remember Romney’s multiple reincarnations. They may enter voting booth with only one vague recollection of what Romney once said: more jobs. This might be enough to make Obama a one-time president.

Unless, of course he and his advisers believe that the voters react to only 7% of Romney’s political message.

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Obama or Romney: Who would Russians choose?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

It’s safe to say that Russians are fed up with presidential elections. Having gone through a high-profile presidential election campaign at the beginning of the year – a campaign accompanied by heated and often nasty political rhetoric and then followed by a series of protest actions organized by the opposition – Russian citizens, to be sure, can live the next few years in quiet.

Naturally, there is even less interest in presidential elections in other countries. Who cares? Yet, there is evidence that many Russians are paying close attention to the ongoing presidential election in the United States, a happening that is only nine short weeks away from the finish line. This attention has its roots in deep, sometimes even bordering on obsessive, interest in all things American and – whether or not Russians themselves would be willing to admit it – on the fact that the United States still remains perhaps the only country whose opinion actually matters to Russia. It’s impossible to imagine a Russian who doesn’t know the name of the U.S. president.

So, if given a chance, who would Russians vote for in the U.S. presidential election: the sitting president Barack Obama, a Democrat, or his Republican opponent, the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney?

Answering this question is tricky. For starters, even the electoral preferences of Russians living in the U.S. are far from clear. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a consensus was that Russian-Americans overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. The explanation was that, being intrinsically “conservative,” Russians were better aligned with the conservative social and economic views of the Republican Party. Besides, as political refugees from the Soviet Union, they idolized the Republican President Ronald Reagan, whom they credited with forcing the Soviet leaders into allowing the Jewish immigration. After becoming eligible to vote, Russian-Americans poured their passion for Reagan onto his successor, George W. H. Bush, whom they supported en masse in 1988 and 1992. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

But much has changed since then. In the intervening years, scores of Russians came to the U.S. not as political refugees, but as skilled workers, bringing along a diversity of social and political views. And as aging refugees of the 1980s and 1990s are becoming more dependent on state programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, they may feel more appreciative of some policies traditionally associated with the Democratic Party. One thing is clear: These days, no Republican presidential candidate can take the “Russian vote” for granted. It’s hardly coincidental that the states with large numbers of Russian-American voters – California, Massachusetts and New York – remain solid Democratic strongholds.

But what about Russians living in Russia who are not versed in the intricacies of U.S. domestic politics and who view American politicians from mostly personal point of view?

One factor that would strongly play against Obama in the eyes of Russian “voters” is his race. It’s not a secret that a disturbingly large number of Russians hold negative, even derisive, view of Obama because he’s an African-American, a sentiment I witnessed first-hand myself during recent trips in Russia. One the other hand, Russians seemingly favor known quantities over unknown personalities and clearly have no problem with the politicians who’ve been in public service forever. From this point of view, many Russians would be expected to vote for Obama exactly because they’re used to him and know “what to expect.” Besides, even more importantly, Russians seems to consider Obama’s policies toward Russia as generally friendly. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain the dramatic rise in U.S-positive attitude expressed by Russians in numerous public polls since Obama succeeded George W. Bush in 2009.

Another factor that would help Obama win over Russian voters is the strong anti-Russian position of his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. Gone are days when Russian pundits hailed “pragmatic” views of Republican presidential candidates on arms control and human rights. There is nothing “pragmatic” in the way Romney views the future of U.S.-Russia relations: He called Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and went on record describing the New START nuclear arms control treaty as Obama’s “worst foreign-policy mistake.” In his acceptance speech at the recent Republican National Convention in Florida, Romney promised to intensify pressure on Russia over the issue of democracy and human rights. Few in Russia would doubt that under Romney the president, U.S.-Russia relations will be seriously damaged.

So, again, who would Russians vote for in the U.S. presidential election? Hopefully, a public opinion agency, such as Levada Center, will pose this question in one of its future polls. But in the meantime, I’d make a wide guess: 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of Obama. Just don’t let Vladimir Churov count the vote.

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