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Ron Mwangaguhunga Headshot

Will Putin Influence the 2008 Election?

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Wouldn't you have liked to have been a fly on the wall during the conversation at the Beijing Olympics between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Bush? While the specifics of the conversation remains tightly held between the two world leaders, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a rough outline on what he overheard to The Australian:

"Mr. Rudd revealed in an interview with Beijing Now in Beijing on Saturday that he was sitting just two rows behind Mr. Bush when an 'animated' discussion between he and Mr. Putin broke out over Russia's advance into South Ossetia, a breakaway region in neighbouring Georgia.

'The President and Mr. Putin were in animated conversation two seats in front of us and I imagine they had a few things on their agenda,' Mr. Rudd said.

Mr. Rudd said that Mr. Bush appeared to be making a strong point to the Russian Prime Minister, even as the world's elite athletes filed into Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium."

Clearly Putin timed his nation's incursion into Georgia to coincide with the Olympics in Beijing. It was as if Putin were saying, "Not only is this the day of China's 'coming out' as a superpower. It is also the day that Russia takes its rightful place on the world's stage as well." From Timesonline:

"In Beijing, Mr. Putin was able to talk directly to another Olympic visitor - President Bush - and still found time to pay Russian athletes a morale-boosting visit. Then he flew straight to Vladikavkaz, across the border from South Ossetia, to meet tearful refugees. Both moments received ample coverage on the country's television evening news, adding to the impression of the former President as an indefatigable action hero."

Putin, in a previous, less bellicose incarnation, loomed not so large on the Bush event horizon. Kissinger shrewdly pegged Putin on a recent Charlie Rose Show as someone who saw himself in the mold of Peter the Great. But the Russian Prime Minister's ambitions not long ago were smaller. Those ambitions were previously tied to St. Petersburg. Who can forget the almost sad but memorable portrait painted by Bob Woodward of Putin, Spaniel-like, trying to persuade President Bush to attend the 300th anniversary of his hometown. Couldn't the American President have looked into his eyes and discerned the earnestness of his request and the consequences of continued humiliations? From Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack:

"Putin pushed Bush on whether he would attend the summit scheduled in St. Petersburg, which is Putin's hometown, for the city's 300th anniversary.'I certainly hope I can make it,' Bush said somewhat coyly."

The pendulum swings. Certainly Putin in his present incarnation would merit more than a coy non-committal response from America's President. As it often is with the gut-level instinctual politics of the Bushies, Strength begets "Respect" (for further reference see: Kim Jong-Il). That "Strength-Begets-Respect" approach to the international theater is not lost on Achmadinejad's Iran, which is tying up the Quartet diplomatically in their mad dash for The Bomb (also known as: Instant Respect). While Bush did make the St. Petersburg anniversary, Bush's foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia was of humiliation to the Kremlin. One could make a strong argument that that wasn't the impression Washington wanted to leave, nonetheless that is how Moscow read the Orange and Rose Revolutions, the official recognition of Kosovo, and the encirclement of NATO.

Future American administrations will have to deal with this new petropolitically-fuelled, choleric Russia. One would have expected an old Russia hand like Condi Rice to have anticipated the blowback. Finally, the U.S. sponsorship of Georgia's bid to join NATO was the straw that broke the Russian Bear's back. From then on it was a matter of honor for the man from St. Petersburg.

That brings us to the title of this post: Will Russia Influence The 2008 Election? Already Putin has had an undue influence on the choice of Obama's running mate. The timing of Russia's Georgia incursion gave urgency to Senator Obama's choice of Senate Foreign Policy Committee Chairman Joe Biden even as the international turbulence strengthened Senator McCain's argument of experience. Moreover, Putin injected himself directly into the US Presidential campaign at the end of August. From Time:

"In an interview with CNN last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of orchestrating the war in Georgia in order to benefit the candidacy of John McCain. He claimed that 'U.S. citizens were indeed in the area of conflict' and that 'the only one who can give such orders is their leader.' Without endorsing Putin's claim, many European officials reportedly do harbor suspicions that there was more American involvement in the crisis than previously reported."

Add to this intrigue the fact that the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, skipped his own party's nominating convention to make an overseas trip into Putin's backyard. Touring a U.S. C-17 military cargo plane at Tbilisi's military airport with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Cheney was making a less-than-subtle show of American force in the region.

Even the Republican Party talking points remind us of the fact that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin shares a border with Russia. Former US Ambassador John Bolton, often a surrogate for Cheney's point of view, said of Palin, "She's been a hunter since birth. I just saw a picture of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer gun. It would be hardy competition between Putin and our next vice president [Palin]."

Already Russia has had a curious influence on the American election of 2008. And something tells me we have not yet seen the full extent of Russia's influence stateside.