There is pretty much a consensus among analysts that Russia is not figuring big as a factor in the presidential campaign in the United States. And this is despite what Stephen Cohen has recently called "Russia’s singular capacity to endanger or enhance our [American] national security." Cohen’s article in The Nation is so good that a larger quote is warranted:
"Despite its diminished status following the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military-industrial complex nearly America’s equal in exporting arms, vast quantities of questionably secured nuclear materials sought by terrorists and the planet’s largest oil and natural gas reserves. It also remains the world’s largest territorial country, pivotally situated in the West and the East, at the crossroads of colliding civilizations, with strategic capabilities from Europe, Iran and other Middle East nations to North Korea, China, India, Afghanistan and even Latin America. All things considered, our national security may depend more on Russia than Russia’s does on us."
This apparent paradox — ignoring Russia while depending on it — can be easily explained. Despite frequent arguments to the contrary, post-Soviet Russia has become a responsible, reliable and predictable world player. So mush so that the American elites, including presidential hopefuls, now have the luxury of "ignoring" Russia while focusing instead on other, more troubling, world’s actors, be it "friendly" Pakistan or "evil" Iran.
Besides, Russia’s agenda vis-a-vis the United States is perennially defensive. Russia only reacts to what the U.S. chooses to throw at it: planned missile defense in Eastern Europe, NATO enlargement, attempts to undermine Russia’s legitimate interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Kosovo, etc. There is absolutely nothing on Russia’s foreign policy to-do list that could directly challenge U.S. national interest.
(Let’s however hope that Russia’s "pro-active" policy toward Georgia won’t result in a situation which the current or the next American administration has no idea of how to adequately deal with.)
While Russia is getting lost on "radar screens" in Washington, lively discussions are underway in Moscow: which presidential candidate — Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain — will be a "better" U.S. president for Russia?
For now, McCain holds a solid lead in negative opinions: his repeated calls to kick Russia out of the G-8 were so often heard that he can hardly claim that he misspoke.
Obama looks better, being youthful and carrying no Cold War scars; he is hoped to hit it off with equally youthful and non-confrontational Medvedev. In addition, Obama went on record promising to work closely with Russia on nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation.
Yet, cautious voices are heard warning that a Democratic president will pay too much attention to Russia’s domestic affairs and may continue criticizing Russia for "backsliding on democracy." Some sophisticated minds predict that Michael McFaul, Obama’s top adviser on Russia, might be a problem too.
Russian obsession with personalities has deep historical, cultural and political roots. It might be difficult for Russians to even imagine that important foreign policy decisions can be made by 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, usually through the Congress.
Two "classic" examples immediately spring to mind. For years, the outlook of U.S. relations with Cuba has been defined by anti-Castro immigrant groups in Florida organized through the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), whereas U.S. policies toward Israel have been heavily influenced by a pro-Israel lobby led by a competent and well-connected AIPAC.
Russia is not an exception, except that there is no such a thing as a pro-Russian lobby in Washington; the pathetic state of U.S.-Russia relations is a result of dedicated efforts by various anti-Russian lobbies. It is due to their relentless activities that the relations between the two counties have "stabilized" at some sub-zero-temperature level. Otherwise, how would one explain the U.S. Congress’ continued refusal to repeal the anachronistic Jackson-Vanik amendment (after all Soviet/Russian Jews who wanted to leave had left and many have already returned)?
The good news for Russia is that the next U.S. president, be it even McCain, won’t make things significantly worse. The bad news is that even a "good" President Obama will be too busy attending other, more pressing, problems to have time for a conscientious effort to "improve" relations with Russia.
With this in mind, what are the implications for Russia’s policies toward the United States?
First, Russia should realize once and for all that no U.S. president sits in the Oval Office for more than eight years. The U.S.-Russia dialog thus must become immune to the ups and downs of personal feelings between two presidents and has to rely instead on a carefully crafted web of mutual dependencies. True, the Obama presidency may facilitate the emergence of an elusive "strategic partnership." Yet the McCain presidency shouldn’t pull the two countries so far apart that they wouldn’t be able to maintain even a polite "selective cooperation."
Second, Russia should become proactive in its dealings with the United States. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will drag on for years, depriving American presidents of their ability to focus on something else. It will be the Russian president’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.
Third, as pointed out by Thomas Graham in his excellent recent article, while the design of U.S. policies toward Russia is "pushed … down in the U.S. bureaucracy", Russian presidents are only accustomed to talking to their American equals. This asymmetry must be eliminated by shifting more authority and responsibility to different, including lower, levels of the Russian government. In addition, Russian foreign policy practitioners must learn the difficult art of communicating directly with individual members of the U.S. Congress.
Fourth (and very much related to the previous point), Russia must finally get serious about creating a functional pro-Russian lobby in Washington. Seeking partnership with the Russian Diaspora — along with aggressive media efforts to improve Russia’s image abroad — was set up as a goal in the recently published "Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation." It’s time to fulfill these promises.
No magic touch (or magicians in the White House or the Kremlin) can change the axis of mistrust and indifference that symbolize current U.S.-Russia relations overnight. The whole body of the strategic partnership between the two countries must be rebuilt, for there is no geopolitical alternative to it.