Will Republicans Chill U.S.-Russia Relations?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

If a small army of political Cassandras – pollsters, pundits, and party operatives – have it right, the results of the Nov. 2 midterm U.S. congressional elections will be a huge disappointment for U.S. President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party.  One week before the vote, the consensus is that although the Democrats are likely to keep control over the Senate, their majority will dwindle from 18 to no more than four-six seats.  In the House of Representatives, however, the Republicans are poised for a big net gain of about 50 seats allowing them to take over the House by forming a 10-12 seat majority.

A new disposition on Capitol Hill will undoubtedly have a dramatic effect on President Obama’s domestic agenda in the second half of his term.  The administration’s foreign policy priorities are likely to be adjusted too, forcing folks around the world to pay close attention.  In particular, the upcoming "Republicanization" of Congress has led some Russian politicians and analysts to worry about a new chill in U.S.-Russia relations, a concern expressed lately by Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Russian Duma Committee on Foreign Relations.

A fear in Moscow is that the Senate ratification of the New START treaty, signed by President Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in April, will become the first victim of the changing political landscape in Washington. As a popular argument goes, the ratification of the treaty in the Senate requires a minimum of 67 votes. Currently, the Senate Democrats have only 59 and therefore need at least eight Republicans to join them.  Should the Democratic majority in the Senate be further reduced, the Obama administration will have to secure votes of not eight, but 14-15 GOP Senators, a task that looks nearly impossible given the current political climate in Washington.

Although superficially correct, this math appears to be overly simplistic.  U.S.-Russia strategic arms control treaties have traditionally enjoyed solid bipartisan support in the Senate: For example, the START II treaty was ratified in 1996 by a vote of 87-4.  There is ample evidence that the New START, too, is viewed favorably by a broad range of Republican foreign policy experts.  A number of luminaries from previous Republican administrations, such as Henry Kissinger, have called on the Senate to promptly ratify the treaty.  The New START was also endorsed by the military, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.  Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relation and the most authoritative GOP expert in the Senate on international affairs, had promised to vote for the treaty.

The Republican opposition to the New START doesn’t therefore appear strategic at its core; rather, it’s being driven by tactical considerations.  Some of the Senate Republicans are concerned that the treaty could keep the U.S. from moving forward with missile defense; others make their support for the treaty contingent on the Obama’s administration commitment to modernizing U.S. nuclear arms arsenal.  Only a handful of GOP Senators expressed their opposition to the treaty on principle whereas the rest signaled that they were still waiting for the administration to address their concerns.  Although making predictions in politics is a shaky business, it is still possible that the New START will be eventually ratified – albeit without much fanfare – during a lame-duck session of the Senate in November or December.

Yet those who hope that the recent improvements in U.S.-Russia relations will continue have many reasons to worry about the impact that the new power configuration in Washington will have on the relationship.  The real problem isn’t the bickering over ratification of the New START treaty; rather, it’s the lack of a solid political and economic basis for the nascent Washington-Moscow dialogue.  Having found a flashy slogan ("reset") to define the future tone of U.S.-Russia relations, the Obama administration has so far failed to articulate a forward-looking, comprehensive, Russia policy.  With many other foreign policy issues demanding urgent attention – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iran nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – the Obama administration may simply lack time and will to clearly define its priorities vis-à-vis Russia.  And this will make its Russia policy an easy target of Republican attacks in Congress.

Of all issues that the congressional Republicans will use to challenge the administration’s approach to Russia, the situation around Georgia is the most serious.  It has a real potential to become a ticking bomb under the still shaky foundation of U.S.-Russia relations.  No real solution capable of releasing tension over Russia’s recognition of independence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is in sight.  And if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words about Russia’s "occupation" of Georgia are to be taken at face value, finding such a solution won’t be easy.  With the Georgia knot still tangled, any military incident in the South Caucasus may result in a precipitous deterioration in bilateral relations.

The Kremlin has obviously no means to influence the results of the elections.  But it may take steps that could help locking up some gains from the policy of "reset."  President Medvedev’s recent trip to Deauville to discuss security issues with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his plan to attend the NATO summit in Lisbon indicate that the Russian leadership is ready to hedge all its bets.  Medvedev could also help his American counterpart by proposing a numbers of initiatives that would further advance the U.S-Russia cooperation in the areas considered important to U.S. national interests. Increasing Russia’s commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan could be one of such initiatives. Constructively working with the U.S. on providing security to Central Asia – where the U.S. and Russia share more common interests than meets the eye – would be another.

True, these steps won’t necessarily usher a warm spring in the relationship between the two countries.  But they may prevent the return of a cold winter.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Will Republicans Chill U.S.-Russia Relations?

  1. Hi Eugene
    On the government level, Russian and American differences over South Ossetia and Abkhazia are likely to linger on for some time. This doesn’t mean that Russian- American relations can’t noticeably improve.
    Consider the Nixon-Brezhnev detente era, which included the US maintaining its non-recognition of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as part of the USSR. Similarly, Turkey’s relationship with the West hasn’t been jeopardized by Ankara’s recognition of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The increased differences between Turkey and the West involve other issues.
    For the Russia bashers out there seeking to make the former Georgian SSR dispute a focal point, Russia and a good number of other countries can do similarly with the stance taken by the leading Western nations to back Kosovo’s independence – in contradiction to UNSCR 1244.
    I know much if not all of this was previously discussed between ourselves and some others. I bring it up again, since it relates to discussing the present and future of Russian-American relations. Forgive me for getting wary at how US-Russian relations are discussed in some circles.
    Regarding the “European” (EU) angle, some sense an increased effort to better understand Russian concerns. IMO, this mindset is premised on a realism of EU limits, measured with the understanding that Russia can play a positive role in Europe.
    I’ll close with a rehash of my idea of a fluctuating bar graph of up and down trends, with the former trend becoming more noticeable over time.
    Best,
    Mike

  2. Sorry, the last point should read as: my analogy of the post-Soviet era Russian-American relationship arguably taking the form of a fluctuating bar graph of up and down trends, with the former trend becoming more noticeable over time.
    I’m reminded of a not so distant RT panel when Stephen Cohen referenced Russia-West differences over Ukraine during the so-called “Orange Revolution,” as a sample to highlight ongoing differences. On that panel, no mention was made of how Russia and the West haven’t been as confrontational with each other regarding the recent Ukrainian election.
    Since that vote, the punditry about a growing authoritarian and pro-Moscow streak in Ukraine has been periodically measured with reasonable commentary from some Western sources.

  3. kievite says:

    I think that your assumption about significant differences between Repugs and Dems in foreign policy is shaky. Those are just two wings of the same party and that’s especially noticeable in foreign relations.

  4. McCain-Lieberman immediately come to mind on that thought Kievite.
    For years, many Americans have been of the impression that a one party system sub-divided between Republicans and Democrats has dominated the American political scene. Some yearn for a left version of the Tea Party. It remains to be seen how the Tea Party movement plays out.
    Russia is at times used as a political football in the American body politic. During the lone televised foreign policy presidential debate between Kerry and Bush, the former attacked the latter for being soft on Russia. That particular foreign policy debate spent more time on Russia than Israel and China.
    Relative to studying other areas of the world, America has a good number of professional foreign policy folks with a background and interest in Russian affairs. I think it’s fair to say that this aspect plays into instances like the aforementioned Bush-Kerry debate.
    New World Order and all, Russia remains relatively important on the world stage. Some have yet to adjust their views with the reality of post-Soviet Russia. Time will possibly improve on the understanding. Note the animosity felt for Germany and Japan for a number of years following WW II.
    For valid and not so vaild reasons, Russia remains associated with the USSR.

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Kievite,
    I actually agree with you that there is no much difference between Ds and Rs as far as foreign policy is concerned (and the vote on START II is a great example).
    But I didn’t say that such difference exists. What I said is that Obama’s Russian policy will be attacked by the Rs in Congress. There is no question in my mind that such attacks — along with dragging their feet on New START ratification — have clear domestic political goals, objectives, and implications.
    So my concern is that the U.S.-Russia relation may become hostage of partisan fighting in DC.
    Thanks for your comment.
    Eugene

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    Following up on your response to Kievite (and apology if this sounds too simplistic):
    As far as Russia is concerned, there are two “parties” in U.S. politics: “realists” and “idealists” (neolibs + neocons). Those are pretty evenly divided between the two official parties. It’s just that the “idealist” Lieberman tends to support Obama (time to time) for political expediency.
    Regards,
    Eugene

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    With regards to Kosovo, we’re completely on the same page (always were). I would however disagree that the U.S. and Russia can move further in their relationship with the Georgia problem unresolved.
    There are many reasons for that. Saakashvili’s money in DC is the first. Having a neolib HRC as Secretary of State in Obama’s Cabinet is another. I’m not sure what concerns me more…
    Best,
    Eugene

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    With regards to Kosovo, we’re completely on the same page (always were). I would however disagree that the U.S. and Russia can move further in their relationship with the Georgia problem unresolved.
    There are many reasons for that. Saakashvili’s money in DC is the first. Having a neolib HRC as Secretary of State in Obama’s Cabinet is another. I’m not sure what concerns me more…
    Best,
    Eugene

  9. Eugene
    Lobbying money can help a cause for sure.
    In the case of Saakashvili, I nevertheless believe that there’re still limits in what such lobbying can do.
    I’d also not completely belittle lobbying on Russia’s behalf, with America’s/West’s best interests in mind. This includes responsive online commentaries in reply to the Kramers, Socors, Kuzios and what not.
    All things considered, I think that the overall response to the 2008 war in the former Georgian SSR didn’t get so out of hand.
    Of late, McFaul has been getting criticism from some for being “soft.” I think it’s more of a matter of feeling out which way the wind blows on Capitol Hill, inclusive of some reasonable thinking from the point of America’s best interests. There’re folks on the left, center and right who pretty much think along our lines.
    The earlier point about Russia as a political football brought up the Kerry-Bush debate to show how once an election is over, realism can set in. A successful Kerry presidential bid wouldn’t have likely led to (IMO) a harder line towards Russia. Kerry’s bashing of Bush for supposedly being “soft” on Russia was a political talking point tactic against his adversary.
    Salut!
    Mike

  10. Eugene
    Lobbying money can help a cause for sure.
    In the case of Saakashvili, I nevertheless believe that there’re still limits in what such lobbying can do.
    I’d also not completely belittle lobbying on Russia’s behalf, with America’s/West’s best interests in mind. This includes responsive online commentaries in reply to the Kramers, Socors, Kuzios and what not.
    All things considered, I think that the overall response to the 2008 war in the former Georgian SSR didn’t get so out of hand.
    Of late, McFaul has been getting criticism from some for being “soft.” I think it’s more of a matter of feeling out which way the wind blows on Capitol Hill, inclusive of some reasonable thinking from the point of America’s best interests. There’re folks on the left, center and right who pretty much think along our lines.
    The earlier point about Russia as a political football brought up the Kerry-Bush debate to show how once an election is over, realism can set in. A successful Kerry presidential bid wouldn’t have likely led to (IMO) a harder line towards Russia. Kerry’s bashing of Bush for supposedly being “soft” on Russia was a political talking point tactic against his adversary.
    Salut!
    Mike

  11. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    Good points indeed!
    With lobbying money you can go only this far without having a bona fine (grassroot) lobby — and there is no Georgian lobby to speak of in the U.S.
    True, there are zillions folks in DC who’d say anything to get hired (McFaul) or elected (Kerry).
    Best,
    Eugene

  12. Eugene,
    Ego aside, I would successfully defend what I say here and elsewhere against those stating noticeably opposite opinions.
    It’s an uphill battle when the leading venues often take an out of sight and out of mind approach.
    I’m supposed to be sympathetic when Felgenhauer complains about (supposedly) being mistreated by The Moscow Times.
    Baaaaah!!!!!!!!!
    Persistence reflecting reasoned analysis can get some influence over the long haul.
    Best,
    Mike

  13. Eugene,
    Ego aside, I would successfully defend what I say here and elsewhere against those stating noticeably opposite opinions.
    It’s an uphill battle when the leading venues often take an out of sight and out of mind approach.
    I’m supposed to be sympathetic when Felgenhauer complains about (supposedly) being mistreated by The Moscow Times.
    Baaaaah!!!!!!!!!
    Persistence reflecting reasoned analysis can get some influence over the long haul.
    Best,
    Mike

  14. Beneficial report,they’re benefit to me. I count on to determine your new share, welcome to our web page, I believe it’s possible you’ll interest in it!

  15. Beneficial report,they’re benefit to me. I count on to determine your new share, welcome to our web page, I believe it’s possible you’ll interest in it!

  16. Leo says:

    In reply to Mike’s note in this thread – “the West” at least had been trying to come to a solution short of Kosovo independence for about 9 years. Granted, those attempts were one-sided at best, but attempts nonetheless. Russia, on the other hand, recognized A. and S.O. within weeks of the “hot” phase of the conflict. All just to be able to legally station peacekeepers? Well, there was (and is) a lawyer at the helm, he should have come up with an international precendent and exercised some legal hair-splitting in order to justify stationing troops.
    Back to the main topic of Eugene’s post – after the midterm elections Obama may have to show that he is doing something to confront the “dictators on the march”. In other words, use foreign policy to strengthen his position internally. That seems already happening with US Embassy in Kiev critisizing the local elections in Ukraine even before the monitoring NGOs have published their conclusions. Unfortunately, the “reset” has not so far opened new opportunities to American business, so it is to a major extent reversible.
    Best wishes,
    Leo

  17. Leo says:

    In reply to Mike’s note in this thread – “the West” at least had been trying to come to a solution short of Kosovo independence for about 9 years. Granted, those attempts were one-sided at best, but attempts nonetheless. Russia, on the other hand, recognized A. and S.O. within weeks of the “hot” phase of the conflict. All just to be able to legally station peacekeepers? Well, there was (and is) a lawyer at the helm, he should have come up with an international precendent and exercised some legal hair-splitting in order to justify stationing troops.
    Back to the main topic of Eugene’s post – after the midterm elections Obama may have to show that he is doing something to confront the “dictators on the march”. In other words, use foreign policy to strengthen his position internally. That seems already happening with US Embassy in Kiev critisizing the local elections in Ukraine even before the monitoring NGOs have published their conclusions. Unfortunately, the “reset” has not so far opened new opportunities to American business, so it is to a major extent reversible.
    Best wishes,
    Leo

  18. In case your existence feels like it happens to be missing the energy that you simply want as well as the determination that you simply might need, generally all you could have to accomplish is shift your perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s