Few would describe relations between the United States and Russia as open or friendly over the past number of years, but the steep slide into open stridency following the invasion of Georgia really puts the matter rather beyond doubt. Whenever we see these kinds of swift changes in tone or unexpected abandonment of diplomatic moderation, it’s an alarm bell that means a change in thinking has occurred within the Kremlin, or at least among some of its members. Although President Dmitry Medvedev has gone to great lengths to publicly express that he has no preferences for the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, I think that there are some compelling reasons why we can read into the recent conduct and words of the Russian leadership that they prefer that Sen. John McCain secure victory over Sen. Barack Obama. I am not unaware that this is a seemingly controversial if not reckless theory, but let me assure you that I don’t arrive to this conclusion simply as a trouble making contrarian, but rather from a few observations of Putin’s domestic political expediencies. This has absolutely nothing to do with which candidate would run a more successful Russia policy (nor is it an endorsement), but rather much more to do with what benefits the siloviki see in having a John McCain administration installed in the White House.
First of all, it’s important to recognize that there is a big difference between the surface-level “friendly” relations that may exist between leaders of Russia and the United States, and the actual substance of the policies they are pursuing (the prime example of course being the soul-gazing George W. Bush, who invites Putin over for lobster at Kennebunkport but then completely ignores a conciliatory missile shield proposal in Azerbaijan).Indeed there are even some people who doubt that Sen. McCain’s strong words about Russia would measure up to his policies if elected. Even Obama’s attack ads have occasionally focused on some of his ties to Kremlin-operated parties in the Ukraine, his having celebrated a birthday party on the luxury yacht of multi-billionaire Putin loyalist Oleg Deripaska, or even the presence of a VP of the Ford Motor Company as his Russia policy man (Ford is heavily invested in Russia).But despite these minor details, Sen. John McCain has clearly established himself as the candidate with a far greater interest in Russia (and I’m not just talking about the preposterous Sarah Palin as Russia expert line). Even before the war in Georgia, McCain was prolifically publishing op/eds, coming up with new one-liners about Putin’s soul (see video), warning about energy imperialism, and generally making it very clear that he has big changes in mind for U.S. policy toward Russia.The Kremlin has been only so happy to play along, especially in the moment when Putin gave an interview accusing the Bush administration of having started the war in Georgia to help get McCain elected – thereby marking a brand new low in trans-Atlantic relations.However there are a number of reasons that Putin et al. may be happy to escalate tensions in an effort to help boost McCain’s chances of winning (there’s more to it than just the fact that Obama might do a better paparazzi photo shoot). For one, in a downward trending domestic market, the siloviki are quite desperate to maintain tensions with what they perceive to be the global hegemon. The presence of an ever-threatening enemy circling in on its borders justifies their authoritarian grip over all institutions of the country in the name of national security. The last thing that these former KGB men can have is constructive dialogue with Washington – that would be seen as weakening their position against other clans in the Kremlin favoring the results produced by slightly more liberal and restrained foreign policy. McCain, I would argue, presents the best chance for the preservation of economic and political populism for the hard line silovik faction within the Kremlin.Second, following Sen. Barack Obama’s tour of Europe, which produced staggering public crowds and a not subtle message from EU leaders that they would warmly welcome a fresh start with a new party, the Russians clearly had alarm bells going off. The continuing disaggregation of EU members amongst themselves and against Washington is absolutely critical for the leveraging of Moscow’s foreign policy aims. There is a good chance that Sen. Obama could produce more unity in Europe, which is bad for the authoritarians in Russia.Thirdly, McCain is committed to keeping large contingents of U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely, and looks set upon escalating tensions with Iran. This is exactly what Russia needs to happen to prevent the emergence of any kind of cooperative relationships to develop Iranian natural gas deposits – their influence in the region is highly dependent on poor relations between Washington and Tehran. The Kremlin also likes to see the U.S. military over-extended and its public exhausted with military adventures in strange faraway countries (a factor that was likely considered in the invasion). Again, nobody can be sure that such problems would disappear under an Obama administration, but the Kremlin is playing their odds.All things considered, we are beginning to see a number of actions, in Georgia to Venezuela and Cuba, from Russian officials that appear to be designed to make it easier for Sen. John McCain to win on the basis of alarmist statements about the threat of resurgent Russia. It just suits too many personal political interests and expediences over the other option.I again should remark that this is certainly not a reflection on which candidate would be “tougher” toward Russia (though I prefer the expression “more successful”) and indeed Mr. Putin and others should be careful what they wish for.