POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 12, 2012
WASHINGTON >> Mitt Romney’s recent declaration that Russia is America’s top geopolitical adversary drew raised eyebrows and worse from many Democrats, some Republicans and the Russians themselves, all of whom suggested that Romney was misguidedly stuck in a Cold War mindset.
But his statement was not off the cuff — and it was not the first time Romney had stirred debate over his hawkish views on Russia. Interviews with Republican foreign-policy experts close to his campaign and his writings on the subject show that his stance toward Russia reflects a broader foreign-policy view that gives great weight to economic power and control of natural resources. It also exhibits Romney’s confidence that his private-sector experience would make him a better negotiator on national security issues than President Barack Obama has been.
Romney’s views on Russia have set off disagreements among some of his foreign-policy advisers. They put him in sync with the more conservative members of his party in Congress, who have similarly criticized Obama as being too accommodating to Russia, and generally reflect the posture of some neoconservatives.
But they have frequently put him at odds with members of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, like Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who was defeated in a primary this week, and the party’s shrinking band of foreign-policy “realists” — those who advocate a less ideological and more pragmatic view of relations with rival powers.
The Romney campaign has been critical of Obama’s record and positions on a variety of national security issues, including containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and confronting China’s rise. But many of the positions taken by Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, have either been vague or not fundamentally different from those of the administration.
Russia, however, is an exception, one where Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has carved out a clear contrast to Obama, who came to office promising to “reset” relations with Moscow, only to find that Russia can be a difficult partner. Just this week, President Vladimir V. Putin abruptly canceled his plans to visit the United States next week for the Group of 8 summit meeting and for talks with Obama at Camp David.
Romney was a leading opponent of the most recent arms-reduction treaty with Russia, ratified by the Senate and signed last year by Obama. Russia figures prominently in Romney’s book, where he calls it one of four competitors for world leadership, along with the United States, China and “violent jihadism” embraced by Iran and terrorist groups.
Some advisers close to Romney, who declined to be quoted or identified by name, say Russia is a good illustration of his belief that national security threats are closely tied to economic power — in this case stemming from Russia’s oil and gas reserves, which it has used to muscle European countries dependent on energy imports.
They also cite his tendency to view foreign-policy conflicts as zero-sum negotiations. Romney, an accomplished deal-maker at Bain Capital, views his negotiating skills as an advantage he holds over Obama.
Romney signaled his stance toward Russia two years ago, when he argued that the New START missile treaty with Russia should be rejected, putting him at odds with a long line of former Republican secretaries of state and defense. A number of arms control specialists said they were startled by some of Romney’s assertions, like fretting about intercontinental ballistic missiles mounted on bombers.
“It would be really fun to watch a Russian bomber with an SS-25 strung to its stomach try to take off,” said Steve Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “Some of the arguments just left people scratching their heads.”
Within hours, rebuttal pieces to Romney’s position, laid out in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, were being circulated among arms-control experts. Lugar, who had spent decades working on arms control issues, publicly disparaged some of Romney’s arguments as “discredited objections.”
Romney felt the missile treaty was a bad deal partly because it would impede U.S. defenses by preventing ballistic missile silos from being converted to missile defense sites, while treaty supporters said that was not an issue because U.S. officials prefer to build missile defense installations from the ground up.
Romney also criticized a White House decision scrapping a proposed anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe and building in its place a reconfigured system to shoot down short- and medium-range Iranian missiles. Romney argued that Obama had caved to Russian pressure, trading away a crucial program with little in return. Administration officials say their reconfigured system offers better protection for U.S. allies.
Romney’s more recent statements on Russia have also drawn criticism from nonpartisan Russia experts who say he mischaracterizes Russia’s potential economic power and paints an inaccurate picture of Russian recalcitrance. Republicans close to Romney acknowledge that politics are a factor, but they also say Romney is driven by fears that Putin will continue political repression and use his country’s energy wealth to finance military expansion.
Some former diplomats and Russia specialists, and some leading Republicans in Congress, have also questioned his characterization of the country as America’s major foe. Many experts, including some close to his campaign, see a declining power that the United States will need to help manage global challenges. Some analysts also say Romney understates the help Russia has provided in dealing with rogue states, like backing a heavy-arms embargo and other sanctions against Iran in 2010.
“There’s a whole school of thought that Russia is one you need to work with to solve other problems in the world, rather than being the problem,” said Thomas de Waal, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council efforts to end violence in Syria, drawing a rebuke from the Obama administration. But analysts also point out Russia’s support for the Iran arms embargo, its cancellation of a surface-to-air missile system sale to Iran and its allowing supplies to be sent through Russia to troops in Afghanistan.
Romney says natural resources could vault Russia to a position of global influence rivaling any nation by midcentury. But many analysts sayB Russia’s fate is so closely tied to oil exports that anything short of a sustained rise in prices will lead to cuts in spending on the military and social programs. Citigroup estimates that oil must reach $150 a barrel in coming years (from current export prices of $120) for Russia to pay for Putin’s spending promises.
The co-chairman of Romney’s Russia working group, Leon Aron, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote this month that in the short term, “Russia’s most serious risk stems from a near-fatal dependence on the price of oil,” and that it could face a fiscal crisis as soon as 2014 that depletes cash for the military and other commitments. (Aron declined to comment, but friends say he would never argue, as Romney has, that Russia is America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”)
Some experts add that the only way the Russian economy could reach the heights Romney fears would be through a wholesale economic liberalization — one that would be cheered by Western countries.
“It would mean radically reforming and changing the Putin system,” said Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University and a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia.