In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney possessed no real foreign-policy experience. But that didn’t stop him from attacking President Barack Obama as weak on national security. With Osama bin Laden dead and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan poised to wind down, Romney looked elsewhere for a place where Obama was failing: Russia.
It all started in March 2012, when a hot mic caught Obama telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more “space” to negotiate on missile defense after the November presidential election in the United States. After news broke of this hush-hush assurance, Romney pounced, branding Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe” in an interview and accusing Moscow of “fight[ing] every cause for the world’s worst actors.” When pressed, he claimed that Russia posed a greater threat than Iran, China, or North Korea. In an essay published on Foreign Policy‘s website the next day, Romney went so far as to say the president was “ingratiat[ing] himself with the Kremlin.” Few in the national security community took his accusations seriously. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama joked during a debate several months later.
As he gears up for yet another presidential run, it’s clear to Romney that his 2012 position has been vindicated. Last March, he authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that Obama has been a “failure” on Russia. That has become a rallying cry echoed by top foreign-policy voices in the GOP, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Sen. John McCain. Romney now says that Obama demonstrated “naiveté with regards to Russia” and that the president’s “faulty judgment” contributed to President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use military force in Crimea.
Romney, though, wasn’t right then, and he isn’t right now. The Crimea invasion, as Obama has said, was the act of a cowed “regional power” — and a declining one at that. The days when Moscow could challenge the United States on a global scale are long gone. Russia is boxed in by sanctions and wracked by a collapsing economy, thanks in part to plummeting oil prices. Romney’s attempt to claim victory on all things Russia is misplaced, and it will certainly undermine his foreign-policy credibility if he chooses to run once again.
The rapid decline in oil prices in 2014 has exposed Russia’s weakness both at home and abroad. With the country a petrostate, the Russian government is now desperate for cash, with over half of its revenue coming from oil and gas. This month, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov attributed $180 billion of Russia’s current $240 billion budget shortfall to the drop in oil prices. This, in turn, has hurt wages as the value of the ruble plummets. And, on a global scale, Russia has lost much of its leverage. As professor Cullen Hendrix of the University of Denver has argued, Russia long used its position as an energy exporter for coercive diplomacy. The decline in oil prices will, consequently, sap that power.
Putin’s aggression has been motivated, in part, by a need to bolster his domestic position amid a dismal economy. That he was willing to invade Crimea — at the cost of inviting both international scorn and powerful sanctions that have helped to further bludgeon his country’s economy — demonstrates that he is focused on his country’s own backyard, with little regard for the world stage. These are the actions of a country struggling to stay relevant, not of a state on the same geopolitical tier as the United States.
Perhaps even more frustrating than Romney’s ignorance of Russia’s economic decline is the fact that his “geopolitical rival” framework misinterprets the most fundamental threat the country poses: that of loose nuclear material. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has focused on “cooperative threat reduction” that seeks to secure the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s arsenal. As Harvard University’s Graham Allison has noted, many of these weapons are vulnerable to unauthorized use and sale on the black market. The Obama administration has stepped up efforts to secure this material, but a return to a Cold War-era position on Russia — as Romney prefers — would undermine cooperative efforts to secure it.
To eliminate this threat, Washington must be able to work with Moscow, a position that Romney openly supported in 2007 and 2008 during his first run for president. Back then, he highlighted Russian efforts to supply Iran with nuclear energy and suggested that the United States encourage “Russia to work with us at the U.N. Security Council.” On security issues, Romney advocated cooperation and “frank and open discussions” with the United States’ “partner.” This version of Romney, it seems, was ditched when it became politically inconvenient in the 2012 campaign.
The Romney today fails to understand that the United States and Russia can work together when they share common interests. In 2013, Russia helped devise the framework for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. And in the past year, Moscow has actively engaged in nuclear talks with Iran and today remains an important player in these negotiations. Though such cooperation may be limited, the Obama administration now realizes that there may well be an opening with Russia on the geopolitical stage.
Romney’s accusation that this amounts to “bowing to the Kremlin” is hyperbole. The reality is that Obama has done pretty much what Romney suggested in 2008: hold “frank and open” conversations with Russia about cultural and political differences, while finding areas on which to cooperate where there are shared values. It is true that Russia has used its veto in the Security Council to undermine U.S. interests, as it did when it vetoed a resolution permitting the use of force in Syria, but Romney’s own answer during his run for the 2008 presidential nomination was that America must work with Russia on this; the fact remains that they are all a part of the Security Council together.
If Romney does run again, he will tell the American people his hawkish stance on Russia has been validated since the last election. This may get him somewhere with the Republican base, which perceives Russia as a threat. But the general electorate does not share this view. While the United States can and should confront Russia’s aggression in Crimea and elsewhere, it should not inflate Russia’s importance on the world stage. Propping it up as the country’s top foe may make for good politics, but it doesn’t accord with the reality that the United States is a truly global power, with interests spanning all over the world, and that Russia has been reduced to playing the bully of its own backyard.
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