The Candidates On Russia

Update: not really an update, but over at The National Interest, William Hill makes the argument that the U.S. response to Russia’s conflict with Georgia has been counterproductive, and makes some recommendations on how we should structure relations with Russia. As this was the same question posed to the candidates, I thought his comprehensive and insightful answer would provide a helpful contrast to their ‘answers’.

So, even the risk of impending economic catastrophe did not prevent the candidates from discussing foreign affairs at their first debate on Friday, September, 26. Most importantly, Sens. Obama and McCain were asked about how the United States should structure its relations with Russia in the aftermath of the South Ossetian conflict. Here is a video of the question and their responses:

From the outset I would note that the two candidates’ positions on Russia are very similar: both think that Russia’s actions in South Ossetia were unjustified. In fact, on this issue McCain tried to score points by criticizing Obama’s initial August 8th statement on the crisis, in which he called for restraint on both sides. In McCain’s view, asking two parties to an armed conflict to show restraint invites ridicule. To an extent, McCain’s criticism has weight – if Russia’s actions from the beginning were unsupportable, as Obama now argues, then their incursion into South Ossetia amounted to unprovoked aggression. In this case, it would not necessarily make sense to call for restraint on all sides. Still, both candidates’ current positions blindly accept Saakashvili’s version of the war’s timeline, which has recently been seriously called into question, even by US political leaders. Both Obama and McCain support eventual NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine – I can’t believe that Lehrer (the moderator) did not ask them the same follow-up that Charles Gibson asked Sarah Palin – would a Russian invasion of a NATO-fied Georgia mandate war with Russia. Even more troublesome – would Russian military movements and exercises in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even at the request of the leadership of those ‘countries’, trigger the collective security provision under the NATO treaty? We need the candidates to answer these questions because, if their proposed NATO membership for Georgia had been realized before the current conflict, we would either currently be at war with Russia or demonstrating that NATO is a worthless organization.

These questions are even more pressing when you consider the second half of each candidate’s response – that there will be no new cold war with Russia. Let’s review – the U.S. is building missile defense systems in the territory of Russia’s neighbors, is encircling – literally not figuratively – Russia through NATO enlargement, has not repealed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, has established permanent bases in Central Asia, and actively promotes the development of oil and gas pipelines that cut Russia out of the business. Meanwhile, Russia is rebuilding its conventional and nuclear defenses, projecting force in local conflicts, and developing ties with U.S. adversaries like Iran. I guess it depends on how you define the Cold War. Yes, Russia is no long intent on spreading communism around the world. But, when our policies are so antagonistic towards one another, and when both U.S. presidential candidates advocate a position that could very possibly lead to war with Russia, then there is certainly something more than just a ‘complicated relationship.’

Obama finished up his answer with a reference to non-proliferation issues, citing his previous involvement with Sen. Dick Lugar in expanding the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. This was an issue where Obama could have scored major points but missed his chance. First, he could have both referenced a piece of legislation that he sponsored that was signed into law. This is especially important with McCain constantly referencing his ‘record’ without specific examples. Second, he could have explained that, as part of preparing the legislation, he traveled with Lugar to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan (his first foreign trip as a US Senator). This is important in a debate where McCain claimed that he has virtually been to every country and met every foreign leader. Obama finished with a knock on Bush’s now annoyingly infamous ‘soul’ comment after his first meeting with then Pres. Putin. I think this is a worthless and possibly damaging point to make – one foreign policy proposal that has distinguished Obama is his willingness to meet with our adversaries. The success of such a policy would at least partly depend on a good personal rapport between Obama and his counterpart.

There were only two things of note that McCain added to the ‘debate’. First, he claimed the the South Ossetia war ‘had everything to do with energy.’ Specifically, he referenced “a pipeline that runs from the Caspian through Georgia through Turkey” (presumably the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline). There is where McCain’s answer completely falls off track – he doesn’t even mention how the BTC Pipeline related to the South Ossetia conflict, then goes on to mention how the presidents of some other former Soviet bloc countries flew to Georgia, and then how he has ‘spent significant amount of time’ with Saakashvili – this is all one sentence! McCain’s reference to the BTC Pipeline might concern the reports about how Russian planes allegedly bombed it on August 12th [and 10th]. In reality, the pipeline was never deliberately targeted and sustained no known damage, according to BP, the majority owner and operator. In fact, the Georgian Defense Ministry has a website showing a map with the locations and descriptions of all alleged bombings by Russian forces on Georgian territory – there is only one reference to the a bomb that landed ‘close’ to the pipeline, but resulted in no damage. Thus, assuming McCain was implying that Russia wished to destroy the BTC pipeline in order to eliminate an alternative to Russian-controlled transit routes, he simply has the facts wrong.

Second, McCain ominously urged the audience to ‘watch Ukraine…watch Ukraine’ because of the Crimea, and the Russian base in Sevastopol, and the recent disintegration of the Orange coalition. I guess McCain gets points for knowing about the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the Russian base and that Yushenko and Tymoshenko’s coalition recently broke down. Still, we didn’t see much from him in the way of analysis or how this fit into his understanding of how the U.S. should relate with Russia.

In sum, American voters did witness a very deep understanding of the issues or coherent strategy for the future of US-Russian relations. I still think Obama would be better on this issue, for reasons that I will detail in my next post, but he is clearly weak in that area. It is so strange to see two candidates – one of whom will be the next President – and neither really understands Eurasia or has even thought much about our strategy.

Meanwhile, a few days earlier, Gov. Sarah Palin again reiterated her foreign policy expertise with regards to Russia:

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2 Responses to The Candidates On Russia

  1. Shaker says:

    I would agree that Sakaashvili is a hot head and the US needs to protect its long-term interests which means good relations with Russia. However, asking the candidates about what it would have meant if Georgia had been a NATO member is not a very useful question. It assumes that Russia’s response would have been the same despite NATO membership. Also, it ignores the substance of NATO membership which involves significant military and other reforms that would take years. Undoubtedly, Georgia’s accession process would have also focused on what to do about the break away regions.On the face of it, if we have a treaty obligation to defend a NATO ally, I would hope we’d fulfill it regardless of who is involved. Otherwise, the promises of the world’s dominant military power are worthless and that’s going to make the world an even more chaotic place.

  2. Jesse Heath says:

    Wow – one of the first intelligent comments from someone I don’t know on my blog. Your point is well taken – Russia might have thought twice before intervening in South Ossetia if Georgia had been a NATO member. Your reference to the accession process is the heart of my point – Georgia’s unstable territorial situation – not to mention its recent backtracking on democracy – essentially disqualifies it form membership. It seems that the candidates support NATO membership for Georgia in order to ‘send a message’ to Russia. I don’t think that corresponds to NATO’s mandate and is hardly the most constructive way to issues like South Ossetia/Abkhazia.

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