MOSCOW, Russia — Experts say the Kremlin would like to see President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the US election next month — although you may be hard-pressed to divine that from recent developments.
On Monday last week, the US Agency for International Development, USAID, wrapped up its 20 years of work in Russia on orders from the Kremlin.
Two days later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a swipe at Obama’s policy of improving ties with Russia by warning that perpetually “reset” relations would constitute a “program failure.”
Later the same day, the US Justice Department charged 11 alleged Russian agents with stealing electronic technology for Moscow through a front company based in the United States.
Those were only the latest installments in four years of “reset” relations that have been strained by disagreement over American missile defense plans in Europe, an impasse on Syria, Vladimir Putin’s return as president and generally fractious politics in Russia and the United States.
Hawkish American presidents have previously helped the Kremlin exploit animosity toward the United States by portraying homegrown problems as the work of meddling foreign powers.
Even so, analysts say Moscow would prefer to continue dealing with Obama, with whose support Russia joined the World Trade Organization and signed a new START nuclear arms treaty with Washington.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, says the Kremlin sees Obama as someone who understands international affairs better. “It would be easier to discuss complicated issues with him because he’s less tied down by old approaches and ideological frameworks,” he said.
“Nonetheless, the hypothetical election of Mitt Romney would not be a disaster because Russia is ready to work — or to not work — with anybody after the [Republican President George W.] Bush years [2000-08],” he added, referring to the post-Cold War-low relations prior to Obama’s tenure.
Romney has accused Obama of being soft on Russia and ceding too much room to the former US Cold War foe on issues such as missile defense without winning reciprocal concessions. He’s described Russia as "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe."
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He’s promised to “reset the reset” by reviewing START, decreasing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and building stronger ties with authoritarian countries in Central Asia, which Moscow considers to be in its backyard.
The confrontational rhetoric prompted Putin — who has alleged that street protests in Russia are sponsored by the West — to ironically thank Romney for being “direct and candid.”
In what many saw as a clear endorsement, Putin said of Obama that “he is a very honest man and that he sincerely wants to make many good changes.
The official statements echo public opinion. More than 40 percent of Russians who are aware of the US elections set for Nov. 6 said Obama’s re-election would favor Russia, while only 4 percent said the same of Romney, according to a poll by the polling agency VTsIOM last month.
Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute of Strategic Analysis, pointed to improved dialogue between Washington and Moscow as a success of Washington’s current Russia policy. Last month, the Kremlin opened a transit airbase for NATO supplies near the city of Ulyanovsk, 500 miles east of Moscow, to assist the mission in Afghanistan. Russia has also allowed overflight supply routes.
Still, he said although Moscow traditionally favors Democratic leaders over Republicans, the logic of that approach doesn’t stand up to retrospective scrutiny.
“Russia really wants Obama to win because of Romney’s fairly stupid comments about Russia being its top geopolitical rival, although of course it recognizes it's all electioneering,” Konovalov said. “At the same time, I don’t think Russia expects any dramatic change of course with the election of either.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Wednesday that relations need new substance to develop. "If we talk about the 'reset,' it is clear that, using computer terminology, it cannot last forever,” he told Kommersant newspaper. “Otherwise it would not be a 'reset,' but a program failure. To continue using computer specialists' terminology, we should update the software."
Lukyanov said although Russia’s “semi-authoritarian regime would use the picture of an external threat to its advantage” at will, Romney’s election nevertheless could be a “gift.”
“You don't even need to add anything to what he says.”