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.

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.
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16 Responses to However half-heartedly, Moscow welcomes Obama’s re-election

  1. Alex says:

    “ can expect a renewed U.S. involvement in “grand projects,” such as the peace process in the Middle East.”. I am afraid, you are correct. Were I be my sentence, thought, I would rather put the quotation marks around “peace”. 🙂

  2. Alex says:

    (apologies – some strange lag in the computer response while I was typing, accidentally made my poor English even poorer than it normally is 🙂 Below is what I intended to leave on the page:

    “ can expect a renewed U.S. involvement in “grand projects,” such as the peace process in the Middle East.”. I am afraid, you are correct. Were it my sentence, thought, I would rather put the quotation marks around “peace”. 🙂

    (and now I am going to hunt the key-logger )

    • Eugene says:

      Hi Alex,

      I think you’re right. The “Middle East peace process” became a cliche, a sequence of words without clearly defined sense. The way how some folks interpret “peace” in this sequence may not have any bearing with a real peace.


      • Amar says:

        He is legally an adult and can make his own dinesiocs.Unless by some deceptive way you can make him commit a crime that would sentence him to jail and prevent his departure, the only thing you could do is offer words of wisdom.What’s he going for anyway?

  3. marknesop says:

    Another good reason for Moscow’s wait-and-see attitude likely stems from doubt around who will be the new SecState. As you suggest, John Kerry is a strong contender, although the notion of having to run a special election in Massachusetts is a serious consideration. However, it should be borne in mind that the White House has known for some time that Mrs. Clinton would be stepping down, and until the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, the front-runner was Susan Rice. She made a dog’s breakfast of that situation and greatly discredited herself, but it would be a mistake to count her out yet. She is a favourite of Obama’s, and wants the job.

    I tried to think of who might be a worse choice, from Russia’s viewpoint, than Susan Rice, but I couldn’t come up with anyone living. Maybe Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly. Susan Rice is not only more hawkish than Mrs. Clinton, quicker on the trigger and more wedded to a might-makes-right philosophy, she also does not even bother to conceal her loathing for Russia and for Vladimir Putin, most recently for balking her efforts to expand the Arab Spring to Syria via U.S. military force.

    If I were a Moscow policymaker, I’d be holding off as well. Speculating on any concessions that might be made in the interests of working together would be a premature and wholly preventable error, and there is little percentage in extending the hand of friendship if you’re just likely to pull it back filled with spit.

  4. Eugene says:

    Hi Mark,

    I agree with you on Susan Rice, except that I think her star began blinking well before the Benghazi incident. I heard rumors that many folks at the State are plain unhappy with her performance at the UN, calling her a weak ambassador. The Benghazi story might have simply sealed her fate as she became virtually “unconfirmable” in the Senate.

    I don’t think the White House should be too much afraid of Scott Brown. Even if he wins the special election, which looks quite likely at the moment, he’ll still face re-election in 2014. Knowing that he may loose again to a serious Democratic challenger like Warren, Brown is likely to become even more “moderate” than he’s been in 2010-2012. While formally caucusing with the Republicans, I predict that he’ll side with Obama on all important issues.

    I easily admit that there are situations when policymakers could and even should take a wait and see approach. The problem with Moscow policymakers is that they take no other approaches (at least as far as US-Russia relations are concerned): they always wait and see. Normal policymakers should plan for different contingencies: for the one with concessions and for the other without; for the hand of friendship and for the one filled with spit. That’s what elevates Ministry of Foreign Embassies to the rank of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


    • marknesop says:

      Hi, Eugene;

      That’s interesting; I had not heard any rumbles of dissatisfaction regarding Rice up until the Benghazi incident, and if there were some it is a credit to American staesmanship, because I deplore the steady erosion of the exquisite manners once associated with international diplomacy, and Rice seems to lose her rag if she can’t find a good parking spot. I certainly would not have called her a weak ambassador, although I would agree that she has done nothing to advance the cause of U.S. interests or to make them more palatable to anyone.

      On the rest of it, on reflection, you are entirely right. Indeed, diplomatic staffs should prepare plans for a range of possibilities on every major issue; that’s their job. Well said, and well defended.

      • Alex says:

        just an off-hand comment & off the topic: “..cause of U.S. interests .. more palatable” – that would be a sugar-coated cyanide for the rest of the Earth population. Even if palatable, one has to force-feed it.

        • Eugene says:

          Don’t be mean: US and Australia are friends, are they not?:)

          • Alex says:

            Friends? No – Australia is just one of the countries with whom US “cooperates” (and btw, knowing Australians , I am not worried at all – I am sure they “cooperate” too – whenever they can get away with it. I wish I could say the same about about the Russians).

  5. Eugene, What do you think about Magnitsky bill? Will it negativly effect US-Russia relations? I am frankly a little worried.

    • Eugene says:


      I think it’s a bad bill for the US, to begin with. No, I don’t condone the treatment Magnitsky had in prison. No, I don’t sympathize with the Russian officials stealing state money. Yet I’m deeply uncomfortable with a bill named after a foreign national who may himself have committed serious financial crimes in his home country.

      For Russia, the Magnitsky bill–or, being precise, the “Magnitsky part” of the H.R. 6156–has no more than a symbolic significance. After all, all the people on the current list are mostly mid-level low enforcement officials who don’t travel in the US and have had enough time to remove money from US banks if they even had it. The problem is that the US’ lead is likely to be rapidly followed by a slew of similar bills in the EU. And that’s where it hits home as Europe is the preferred destination of all Russian bureaucrats. Facing sanctions there, they will turn their anger at the Boss, asking him: where is the protection you promised us? And that makes the Boss nervous. In my opinion, this is the only reason Russia takes the Magnitsky bill so nervously. Otherwise, it could simply ignore it as nuisance, which it really is.


      • Anonymous says:

        Interesting perspective, I have not thought about similar bills in EU. You are probably right. I do not of course condone Magnitsky’s treatment or corruption either. My problem is that this plays into the hands of those who would like to see Russia isolated. The problem is twofold: 1] very simplistic image of Russia as an enemy, a country run “by thugs”, according to the language of one US congressman. The book by Masha Gessen sells an image of Putin as a thug and Kremlin as a collection of thugs. Looks to me that there a bit of anti-Russian lobbying going on in Washington DC. Perhaps helped by the Russian clumsy conduct.
        2] the idea is that Russia should stay isolated from Europe. Not becuase who the Russians are, but because it is better suits American strategy globally. The US Grand Strategy in Europe is “soft containment” of Russia. If Russia is painted black, it is easier to keep Europeans on the leash and keep them harnessed to the US power. Contrary to this Anglo-American idea, the “old Europe” (France, Germany, Italy) would like to see a “creeping integration” of Russia into Europe. There is a exsistential difference of the visions vis-a-vis Russia between US and “Old Europe”. The Russians do not see that and they don’t play “Europe” card. They do not do it well. But they should do it instead going back to their shell, or worse, completely embrace China.

        • Eugene says:

          Thanks for your very insightful comment. Given a chance, I would have nominated your line “Looks to me that there a bit of anti-Russian lobbying going on in Washington DC” as the Understatement of the Year:) And yes, I totally agree that Russia’s conduct doesn’t help. I think it’s fair to say that Putin’s return to the Kremlin added another drop of black paint to the whole picture; even his friend Angela Merkel is trying to distance from him, at least in public.

          Yet, I’d challenge your point of view that the difference in approaches towards Russia between Old Europe and the US is existential. I’d rather attribute this difference to the strong economic ties between Russia and France/Germany/Italy; those ties are ridiculously weak between Russia and the US. Besides, like it or not, Russia and the Old Europe live in the same cul-de-sac, if not the same home; the US resides on the other side of the town.

          And again, I’d agree with you that should the “Chinese party” in the Russian leadership prevail–with Russia turning to China at the expense of Europe–the consequences could be dire.

          Best Regards,

  6. Alex says:

    Just a thought that perhaps, the only real positive thing for Russian-American relations the Obama administration did, was to send McFaul there. Sending him was probably, an accident, but keeping him and giving him time to learn was an insight. McFaul is unique in that he is about the only American who is able to explain to the Russians the culture of the American political thinking in the way they (Russians) can understand and perhaps, even respect/accept it (even if as an alien one). With him they also have a chance to learn to work with/around it, without falling into traditional open rejection/confrontation mode.

  7. Eugene says:

    Alex, I agree with you. Initially, I was very skeptical about him (and even criticized him in this space), but now I believe that by and large, he is a good ambassador. He knows how to keep his ground and yet express a respect for the “host” country. Besides, he learns his lessons quick: I was impressed how promptly he realized that it’s a bad taste to RT La Russophobe:)


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