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Obama Re-Election Bid May Signal Cooling Toward Russia – Analysis

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By Alexei Pilko

The main contenders for the Republican nomination for president faced off in a debate this week in New Hampshire. The debates appear to be part of the Republican strategy to neutralize President Barack Obama’s political gains this spring, which have put his political opponents in an extremely difficult position.

Accepting Republican surrender

Obama heads into the summer in a strong position. By kicking off his re-election campaign early, Obama frustrated Republican attempts to work out an election strategy and, most important, decide who will be the tip of the spear – their presidential nominee. The seven presidential hopefuls that took part in the New Hampshire debate found common ground only in their criticism of the current president.

Obama seems to be attempting what very few American presidents managed to accomplish – becoming the candidate of interparty consensus, a national leader without any alternative. This would guarantee his victory in November 2012.

To achieve this, Obama has to minimize risks by striking a deal with the Republican leaders. The idea is to convince them to nominate a fatally flawed candidate, one that will be rejected by American voters.

Very soon it will become clear whether the Republicans will go for this deal or put up a real fight. In the meantime, let’s note that such an interparty deal will have a direct impact on Russia’s interests.

Russia is again becoming a serious factor in the domestic political struggle in the United States, probably for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The Russian-American “reset” will most likely become the main chip in any bargain with the conservative wing of the U.S. political establishment.

The game with Moscow is already on

In theory, Obama has two options. He can persuade his political opponents that the new course in relations with Russia is the right one, i.e. seeking gradual democratization and increasing acceptance of Western values in Russia. If this course fails, he can do an about-face, adopt a more confrontational stance toward Moscow and portray Russia as a country that has missed its chance to fully integrate into the “civilized community of nations.” In this way Obama can deprive the Republicans of an opportunity to accuse him of excessive flirting with the Russians to the detriment of U.S. national interests.

Republicans are already taking the first steps in this direction, to the chagrin of President Obama. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, and Rebeccah Heinrichs, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, took to the pages of the influential magazine “Foreign Policy” to accuse the president of selling out U.S. national interests and making too many concessions to the Russians.

Obama decided to charge Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and one of the most prominent American experts on Russia, with the important mission of playing the Russian card in his election campaign. Obama recently appointed McFaul to be the U.S. ambassador to Russia starting this fall.

Expect relations to cool

Obama has made a good choice for this important position. McFaul is the author of several works on the transition to democracy in Russia. He has an intimate knowledge of Russia, its history and the characteristics of its political system, and has the necessary contacts in the higher echelons of the Russian government.

His challenges are clear. First, he must compel the Russian leaders to make a number of foreign policy concessions (or actions that may be interpreted as such) as proof that Obama’s policy towards Moscow is the right one.

Second, McFaul has been instructed to work closely with the whole spectrum of Russia’s political parties in order to support the most acceptable partner in the presidential elections in Russia in March.

Third, if an “authoritarian” politician wins these elections, McFaul will have to organize opposition to influence the new president in a way that benefits American interests.

Obama is essentially playing a win-win game. If Russia makes concessions (especially on such issues as missile defense in Europe, Libya or Iran), this will vindicate his “reset” policy in the eyes of American voters regardless of Republican criticism. Otherwise, he will change his rhetoric towards Moscow to prove that he is willing to change course. This will also win him Republican support.

The latter option seems the more likely now. Russian-American relations may deteriorate by the summer of 2012 (after the March elections in Russia and on the eve of the November elections in the United States) as a result of irresolvable disagreements over missile defense in Europe.

At the start of his first term, the “reset” scored Obama serious political points. Now, at the end of his first term, curbing relations with Russia and fighting for democracy against an allegedly authoritarian Kremlin may become a powerful trump card that will win him another four years in the White House.

It seems that the 2009-2012 period of bilateral relations is passing through the same cycle as under George W. Bush – from his friendly meeting with Vladimir Putin in Ljubljana in 2001 to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. The two sides will once again go from cooperation to confrontation. History is not immune to irony.

Alexei Pilko, assistant professor at Moscow State University’s Faculty of World Politics, for RIA Novosti

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Ria Novosti

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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