Two years ago, on the eve of U.S. presidential election, I tried to convince a couple of friends in Moscow that as president, the Democrat Barack Obama will be better for U.S.-Russia relations than his Republican opponent, John McCain. My friends disagreed, arguing that historically, Russia had always been better off with Republicans than Democrats.
What a difference two years can make! Republicans are obviously not loved in Russia anymore. Following their victory in the midterm congressional elections, they were already accused, by some folks in Moscow, of a desire to derail the Obama administration's policy of "reset" with Russia. One of the Russian parliamentarians from the ruling United Russia party went as far as to describe the Republicans as "a dark force" in American politics and called Sarah Palin "monstrous." (Ms. Palin routinely attracts strong adjectives, but I can't remember anyone in the U.S. choosing this particular one.) Suggestions that the election outcome has been a result of a vast right-wing conspiracy to harm Russia may soon follow.
Everyone seems to agree that the results of the November 2 elections will affect U.S.-Russia relations, and, most likely, in a negative way. But before we all collectively hit a panic button, let's clarify a few things.
First, American voters sent a lot of congressional Democrats packing because they were unhappy with the state of the economy and with what they viewed as a dangerous expansion of federal government. International affairs didn't feature in the elections at all (which is in itself remarkable, given that the country is in the middle of two wars). Therefore, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the voters have punished Obama for his foreign policy, including his attempt to improve the relationship with Russia.
Second, I see no signs of a unified, organized, opposition among congressional Republicans to Obama's Russia policy. True, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has emerged as a leading Republican opponent of the New START treaty in the Senate. His fellow Arizonian, Sen. John McCain, is terribly unhappy with the situation in Georgia, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) can't seem to stand anything Russian. Yet these individual centers of resistance don't look like they're coalescing into one.
Such an organized, active, "anti-Russian" front may soon emerge in the House of Representatives, thanks to the imminent ascension of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to the position of Chairwomen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A recent article in Foreign Policy called Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen "a Russia sceptic", an understatement of epic proportion. In the short term, Ros-Lehtinen is likely to attempt, however unlikely to succeed, to block the U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear ("123") agreement. In the long run, one can expect a long sequel of Committee hearings dealing with "human rights violations" in Russia and featuring the leaders of Russia's so-called democratic opposition along with their admirers from conservative think tanks. As the first salvo at the administration, Ros-Lehtinen has already called on President Obama "to wake up and recognize the brutal nature of the regime he is dealing with in Moscow and to rethink his 'reset' policy with Russia." A bitter foe of Hugo Chavez, Ros-Lehtinen will be nervously watching (and producing as much noise as possible in the process) for any signs of increasing cooperation, especially in the military and nuclear energy areas, between Russia and Venezuela.
Third, the rumors of the imminent death of the New START treaty in the Senate appear to be somewhat exaggerated. As I wrote before, the treaty is supported by a broad range of Republicans, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relation Richard Lugar (R-IN), and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Besides, according to a recent public poll, two-thirds of Americans (including about 6 in 10 Republicans) want the Senate to ratify the treaty. The Republican opposition to the New START doesn’t therefore appear ideological at its core (I suspect more congressional Republicans oppose Obama's health care reform than nuclear arms reduction treaties with Russia); rather, it’s being driven by tactical considerations. The more the Democrats promote the treaty as a foreign policy success of the Obama administration, the more tempted are the Republicans to deny the president such a success, especially now, in the wake of their election glory.
As the administration is desperately trying to secure the support of a handful of Republicans to vote for the treaty during the lame-duck session of the Senate in November or December, some steps taken in Moscow look unhelpful. I'm talking about the decision by Russia's State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee to repeal its earlier recommendation to ratify the New START. The very timing of the decision — on November 3, immediately after the results of the midterm elections began arriving in Moscow — makes it look hysterical and, to be brutally honest, childish. Immediately, some American experts interpreted the Duma Committee's move as an indication of Moscow's distrust in Obama's ability to negotiate with Congress.
As I argued a few weeks ago, the real threats to "reset" don't originate from a position taken by a number of high-ranked congressional Republicans – and even not in the new power configuration on Capitol Hill. The real danger comes from the fact that having made "reset" a flashy slogan to define a new tone of U.S.-Russia relations — and then having made "reset" a hostage to the ratification of the New START – the Obama administration has failed to articulate a forward-looking, comprehensive, Russia policy. A failure to ratify the New START will inevitably throw U.S.-Russia relations back precisely because the ratification of the treaty has been defined as the major prerequisite for these relations to move forward.
The other side is to be blamed too. Russia's U.S. policy remains passive and reactive, with Moscow only responding to initiatives coming out of Washington while never putting forward ideas of its own. And this is not because of the inability of the Russian expert community to generate such ideas. They are being proposed, but so far, apparently failing to reach the upper echelons of the country's foreign policy establishment. If the problem resides there, isn't it time to make some personnel changes at Smolenskaya Square?
Finally, I'll never get tired of repeating that Russia should take practical steps toward creating a professional lobby in the U.S. Its primary goal, at least initially, should be working with both parties in Congress to explain Russia's positions on issues and to advance its economic interests. This may not prevent certain shifts in the bilateral relationship with any new presidential administration. Yet this may make the relationship largely immune to the changing congressional outlook every second year.
Should this happen, folks in Moscow won't have to struggle deciding whom, Democrats or Republicans, they prefer. They will love both.