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Getting to Know McCain’s Brain on Russia

mccain042308.jpgRepublican nominee for the U.S. presidential election, Sen. John McCain, is easily the most outspoken of the bunch on Russia, often making brave and provocative comments about his plans for relations with the Kremlin. But who has this nominee’s ear on the day-to-day details of the relationship with Russia, and what is the ideological approach? The answer to this question was explored recently in an excellent Moscow Times article about the Russia advisers of all three candidates. So who is Stephen Biegun, and what might we expect from him if McCain were to win the presidency?

Biegun’s credentials are a mix of prestige and curious gaps. He reached his highest position in the George W. Bush Administration, appointed as executive secretary of the U.S. National Security Council from 2001 to 2003 – a very interesting handful of years to cut one’s teeth in diplomacy, yet not very encouraging from a Russia policy perspective (Bush’s idea of “confronting Russia” mostly involves fishing and dancing with Putin). Biegun went from the Security Council, where he was one of Condoleezza Rice’s key deputies, to work as the national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.Biegun also has strong corporate ties – after leaving Frist’s office, he joined up with the Ford Motor Company to serve as a corporate officer and vice president of International Governmental Affairs. This was a particularly interesting hire for Ford, given their tremendous interests in Russia (the Ford manufactured “Focus” hatchback was the highest selling foreign car in the Russian market in 2007). Although the corporation is slashing jobs in the United States, this week they announced that production in Russia will increase by as much as 75%, and 1,500 jobs will be added to their St. Petersburg plant. Russia is by far the most attractive automotive market for the next decade as exemplified by the mega-deal between Renault and Avtovaz.Biegun’s connection to Ford could potentially raise interesting Corporate Foreign Policy issues with the U.S.-Russia relationship if McCain wins the election. For example, in his role as Co-Chair for the Coalition for US-Russia, he’s in charge of organizing “a broad-based group of U.S. interests who strongly support Russia’s entry into the WTO as a member in good standing.” This group is lobbying Congress for the repeal of Jackson-Vanick and the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations for Russia.[As I’ve written in many other articles on this blog, I’m all for repealing Jackson-Vanick, but I think we should ask something for that in exchange. I also strongly support Russia’s incorporation into the WTO, but it strikes me as somewhat strange that McCain and Biegun want to kick Russia out of one club (the G8) and sign it up for another.]Ideologically, Biegun appears to be a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative. Both he and his wife Adelaide have contributed the maximum amount of $2,300 to the McCain campaign, and his involvement with the International Republican Institute (where he directed the Russia office from 1992-1994) likely helped his political career enormously, placing him right into the mainstream of the party.Interestingly, the IRI has come back into the news recently as FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev has singled out the organization with some lurid accusations to explain that all foreign NGO and civil groups were simply covers for spies, and therefore merit increased pressure and oversight from the state. Patrushev says that the IRI recently organized a meeting in Slovakia with civil society groups to help create a “color revolution” in Belarus – a claim that the group denies. We know from many other examples that there is nothing the Kremlin fears more than a grassroots popular uprising (not even missile shields of Kosovo statehood is so scary), and this is one organization that the Kremlin is clearly worried about.Biegun strikes a contrast with the Russia advisers of McCain’s competitors, such as Michael McFaul and Zbigniew Brzezinski, in that he does not come from an academic background. He graduated from the University of Michigan, where he studied Political Science and Russian, but he did not continue to post-graduate studies. Insofar as I have been able to briefly research, I cannot locate many writings on Russia authored by Biegun (although he did once introduce Sen. Barack Obama at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations).As political advocacy practitioner rather than a theorist, one might expect Biegun to be more of a realist from a policy perspective. According to his interviews with the Moscow Times, Biegun has already tried to create some distance between himself and the Bush administration: “It’s very difficult for countries to maintain over time a strong level of cooperation simply anchored in an opportunistic judgment of shared interests. There has to be more.“In short, Biegun and McCain are responding to the grumbling from conservatives who are tired of witnessing appeasement with Putin, and who want to see a stronger, “more muscular” approach to relations with the Kremlin. Biegun fully supports President Bush’s plan to build missile defense sites for a technology that does not yet exist to combat a threat that does not yet exist – whereas Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do not. He also supports NATO’s invitation to being the MAP process for the Ukraine and Georgia – a common policy for all three candidates.However McCain’s brain on Russia did sharply clash with Michael McFaul over the possibility of extending an invitation of NATO membership to Russia as “pollyanish.” He told the reporter: “I think there’s a fundamental false trade-off that many people make, and most certainly the Bush administration has accepted this false trade-off, that if you talk about democracy and you stand up for human rights, you’re going to alienate President Putin and you’re not going together him to do the real things that matter to America.“It remains to be seen how much of this muscular bluster and big talk on Russia will come to pass, and how much is simply fragmented to individual issues, and played up for campaign purposes. Despite McCain’s “Bush-like chest-thumping” by threatening to eject Russia from the G8, journalist and author Steve LeVine notes that none of the three candidates have said a word about building a comprehensive Central Asian energy strategy (focused as they are instead only on Iraq), while this region is in fact a top policy priority for Putin and Medvedev.Although it certainly doesn’t appear so, with McCain and Biegun I think we are getting a business-friendly outlook on relations with the Kremlin, which may or may not eventually change the ambitious promises with respect to security and defense issues. Having Putin move down the hallway to another office may give this candidate something of an escape valve to adjust his policies and seek more cooperative relations with the new face of Dmitry Medvedev – even if the substantive issues of missiles and NATO remain frozen (which is not the worst status quo).