John McCain and Barack Obama have a long road ahead of them until Election Day. There will be many tests and obstacles to overcome. Some will be tougher than others. However, the eventual winner of this captivating duel will have their hands full come January 21st. Not least with issues such as energy, healthcare, the Middle East and the economic down turn. However, they will also be faced; presumably, with an issue American politicians thought had died in the early 1990’s. Russia is once again at the forefront of Washington’s attention.
It had seemed that America and Russia were drawing closer together, forging new partnerships and great cooperation with one another. Yet the old sense of mistrust and anxiety seems to be sinking back into the minds of many in Washington and Moscow. These feelings will also be playing heavily on the minds of Obama and McCain.
The tones of both Presidential hopefuls could not be different when it comes to foreign policy, just look at Iran. However the issue of Russia shows that there are some similarities. John McCain has cited that the controversial missile defence shield, to be stationed in the Czech Republic and Poland, is most definitely a reaction to the threat posed by Russia. The very notion of the Shield has drawn great hostility from Moscow, who has always argued that it is aimed at them. Although the Bush administration has always strenuously denied this; Senator McCain’s comments will have led to greater resentment towards the idea.
A general notion floating around is that although America and Europe are keen to have the missile defence shield in place because they feel threatened from ‘rogue’ nations, such as Iran; it is in fact Russia who is feeling threatened. Her actions in Georgia last week suggest that this notion may be true. Russia is sending a warning to the West that she is still strong, and will not be pushed about. The fact that Georgia was comprehensively and disproportionately routed by Russian troops is a message aimed at the West.
Georgia was subject to much press coverage earlier in the year, when she (along with Ukraine) was temporarily refused entry into NATO. This did not sit well with the Russian hierarchy of Medvedev and Putin. Although the two former Soviet states were not granted entry into the Western alliance, it was more of a ‘not yet’ than a definite no. Both NATO and the EU have been encroaching into former Soviet territory, with the Baltic States and former Warsaw Pact nations joining both organisations. This has led Russia to feel, once again, isolated and surrounded by American proxies.
Russia has rejuvenated itself over the past eight years. The military which looked far from superpower-esque during the Chechen campaigns of the 1990’s, has had a much needed re-vamp. Spending has increased, and it shows with modern hard-wear now at their disposal. The signs were there for all to see that Russia would not sit back and watch her power and authority diminish, not least in her own backyard. The Litvenenko murder, the reinstatement of Soviet style long range air patrols and diplomatic flexing of muscles, such as the UN Mugabe debacle back in July, were all clear signs that Russia was back on the horizon as a possible sore spot for America. Now the actions of the Russian military in Georgia complete the package. Russia is a force once more.
How will America act towards this? The current, so-called, ‘lame-duck’ administration of George W Bush has reacted strongly, albeit, verbally to the Russian onslaught on Georgia. However, surely Bush knows that there is little he can do in the short time he has left in office. It really is a problem for the next incumbent in the Washington hot seat. Contrasting to McCain’s rhetoric towards Russia, Senator Obama has again been more diplomatic in his approach; a policy which has become common for the Illinois Senator. Obama is portraying himself as being more cooperative with the Russians in cases where Moscow feels threatened, such as Missile Defence.
However, what is the right way to approach Russia? Is McCain right in offering a tough line with Moscow. Showing them that their aggression to their sovereign neighbours will not go unchallenged by his administration? Or is Obama right to try and rein Russia in, and rebuild their trust, without compromising the security of America or Europe. The fact is whatever position is taken with Russia there will still be great difficulties and complexities when concerning the relationship between America and Russia. These are testing times in the relationship. However, one does not simply turn into friends over night, after being enemies for the past forty five years. The next President will have to learn that, and most probably learn that the hard way.
Nevertheless, I feel that although both Presidential hopefuls have said that they would not be dictated to by Russia when it comes to their national security, this may lead to other concessions. Giving in to Russia demands about NATO expansion may be one area of compromise. America needs Russia more than she knows. Oil and gas flow from Russia into Europe, and with the flick of a switch Europe could be cut off. Not only that, but Russia is needed by America in its fight against global terrorism. Having Russia as an enemy, along with Islamic extremists is not an ideal situation for the Pentagon, already stretched by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Securing loose nuclear materials throughout the ex Soviet Union nations is another area where America will need Russian cooperation (something which Barack Obama has previously highlighted).
Barack Obama and John McCain have a lot of issues that need dealing with if they are successful in their bid for the White House, some more important than other. Can the next President find the right tactic to deal with Moscow? The importance of how to deal with Russia is, as always for Washington, very high on the agenda.
By Stewart Munn