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US Elections In The Eyes Of Russia – OpEd

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By Habibe Ozdal

Electoral campaigns in the U.S., which take nearly a year and therefore are observed for so long by international actors, were finalized with President Obama being reelected. Indeed, when it is the U.S. president who is being elected, the event goes beyond the country’s borders and relates to an international range of topics concerning regions from the Middle East to Russia, and even to the Asia-Pacific. And when we are to consider the results from the point of Russia, Russia-U.S. relations constitute the focus of discussions as would be expected. Even though difficult tests are ahead for the relations in the era following the “reset,” experts in Russia do not anticipate a significant disjuncture in the relations.

Russia - United States Relations
Russia – United States Relations

A study which was published in Russia the day before the elections and presents evaluations regarding the electoral environment witnessed throughout the path toward the elections should be mentioned here. Elections to be held in the U.S. were to be neither fair nor free, according to a study regarding the electoral environment in the U.S. conducted by some NGOs commissioned by the Central Electoral Committee of Russia. The report includes statements and explanations regarding the neglect by the media of candidates other than Romney and Obama during the electoral campaigns and the omission of some enfranchised citizens from ballots. Therefore the report [1] seems to be prepared as a “response” on the part of Kremlin, in order to counter heavy criticism by the White House regarding the functioning of the Russian political system. On the other hand, it should be noted that the aforementioned study was able to resonate neither within Russia nor internationally.

Obama’s new policy toward Russia will in essence not only determine the relations between the two countries. Because while relations with Russia are designating the United States’ general attitudes in the international arena and the White House’s preferential attitude toward the Eurasian geography, they have also been closely related with the fate of the initiatives regarding the Asia-Pacific region in place since the first term of Obama and the balances in the Middle East.

When Obama took office, Russian-U.S. relations were probably at the lowest level in recent times. The relations which were strained and hence degraded during the Bush-Putin era were “reset” as a result of the pressures from contextual developments and the influence of Obama’s endeavors in order to improve the U.S. image. This initiative was basically proposed as the greatest failure of Obama’s foreign policies by the Republican candidate Romney throughout the electoral process. But this initiative was what really enabled the agreement on START 2 which foresaw the limiting of strategic weapons between the U.S. and Russia, the approval of the fourth package of sanctions against Iran by the U.N. Security Council, the finalization of Russia’s accession to the WTO after many years and the transportation of non-lethal military equipment over Russia and Central Asian countries into Afghanistan.

What should be expected in the context of bilateral relations from the new term?

Actually, relations between the two countries are not expected to change remarkably in the short run. Also according to Prof. Viktor Kremenyuk, the Vice President of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, “No significant change will occur after the presidential elections. A new Cold War era should not be expected.” It is possible to give examples of the shaping of relations in the “post-reset era.”

The Obama administration, which is still sensitive to Iran’s nuclear activities, needs to constrain the elbowroom of Tehran through sanctions at the outset. In addition, the U.S. needs to continue to receive logistic support from Russia and Central Asian countries while getting ready to depart from Afghanistan. Therefore the “reset” policy needs to continue. On the other hand, the new term also entails changes which will cause the bilateral relations to face ups and downs.

The greatest change in bilateral relations was due to Putin replacing Medvedev as the new president of Russia, again. Medvedev was Obama’s counterpart for a greater part of the former’s first term, and he represented the mild and reconcilable face of Russia. Even though Putin and Medvedev coordinated in “harmony” to some extent, Putin’s preference of a strong tone and methods accordingly as part of an image of strong leadership was quite different than Medvedev’s. The leader’s influence in Russian politics which has been determinant since 1992 will reveal itself from time to time throughout the new era of Russian-U.S. relations on the basis of discourse. However, in Putin’s article which elaborates on his new vision of foreign policy and was published before the last presidential elections, he set forth the goals of attracting foreign investment to Russia and realizing common projects in the field of economic cooperation regarding his policies toward the United States. From this point forth, it won’t be a surprise to observe “selective cooperation” in specific fields between the two countries when necessary.

On the other hand, international issues will constitute an important and challenging test for bilateral relations in the following term. The missile shield project, which was delegated to NATO in Obama’s initial term after it created serious tensions in relations during the Putin-Bush era, is one of such disputes. And the Syrian crisis, which arose clearly not as a regional conflict after 20 months of struggle but as a great power struggle concerning the very structure of the international system, also emerges as an international crisis with similar repercussions on bilateral relations. Obama’s foreign policy toward Syria will be important as well in his new term, as he has preferred not to step forward but to lead from behind during the process before the elections. The main determinant in the post-reset era regarding Russian-U.S. relations, which are closely related with many regional and international developments, will revolve around the question of whether Obama will engage Russia as an “equal actor” in the international arena, as the Kremlin has been struggling to assert such a perception for many years. While the transformation of Russian domestic politics expected by Western countries has been stalled for a while, Putin is trying hard to protect domestic politics from external influences as much as possible by forcing NGOs receiving foreign support to be enrolled as “foreign agents.” Such a picture arouses some sort of curiosity regarding the course of bilateral relations and Obama’s new policy toward Russia.

Habibe Ozdal
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies

[1] For the full text of the report, see: “Дистанционный мониторинг выборов Президента США”, Российский общественный институт избирательного права6а, 6 October 2012, http://www.roiip.ru/news/738.htm.

JTW

JTW

JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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