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Mitt Romney's Russian Delusions

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Mitt Romney's claim on CNN that Russia represents America's "number one geopolitical foe" demonstrates how far the Republican party's relationship with Moscow has soured.

In June 2001, five months after President George W Bush had taken office, the story was quite different. His first meeting with then President Vladimir Putin had proven a remarkably tension-free affair with both sides exchanging warm words. Indeed it was at the press conference after that Bush passed his famous judgement on the Russian leader:

I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

Of course even then rumblings about America's plans for missile defense in Europe and broader concerns about the encroachment of NATO into former Soviet countries could be detected. Nevertheless the overriding sense among diplomats was that the relationship between the two countries was improving, if not yet altogether comfortable.

It is easy to see the 2008 conflict between Russian and Georgian troops over the breakaway region of South Ossetia as having changed all that. But in truth the problems between the two countries began far earlier than that.

In September 2002 the US was attempting to build international support for an operation against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Following the launch of the Afghanistan campaign in the previous year, however, many countries were wary about the prospect of another military intervention in the Middle East.

Russia was firmly in the latter camp. Indeed then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned that his country stood ready to use its veto in the UN Security Council as, he said, there had not been "a single well-founded argument that Iraq represents a threat to US national security."

This threat, and the subsequent failure of the US-led "coalition of the willing" to gain a clear UN mandate for military action against Saddam, marks the key turning point in recent Republican thinking. From that point on Russia was seen as a barrier to America's foreign policy ambitions.

John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 and outspoken critic of Moscow, made the case for a cooling of relations with Russia in 2010 at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In an emotive speech he claimed:

What we need most now is a greater sense of realism about Russia -- about the recent history of our relationship, about the substantial limitations on Russian power, about the divergences in US and Russian interests, and about the lack of shared values between our governments. We don't need WikiLeaks to reach these conclusions, my friends. They have been staring us in the face for a very long time.

He cited the traditional bugbears of Russian opposition to European missile defense, the use of resource politics and ambitions to maintain the Soviet sphere of influence to back up his claim. Yet his central point was not simply the "divergence in US and Russian interests" but the "lack of shared values." That is, it is not only politics, but incompatible ethical positions that have undermined relations.

It is in this light that we should see McCain's taunt to Putin following the latter's victory in this month's presidential election. In typically diplomatic style the Arizona senator tweeted: "Dear Vlad, Surprise! Surprise! You won. The #Russian people are crying too!"

This perception of an unbridgeable cultural divide between Moscow and Washington is something that should concern the international community. After all between them these two countries maintain around 95% of the world's nuclear weapons, according to the Center for Arms Control.

Anti-American rhetoric formed a key part of Putin's re-election campaign with street protests around Russia against electoral fraud accused of receiving orders and cash from Hillary Clinton and the US State Department. It would surely be a strategic mistake to vindicate the Kremlin's paranoia by dubbing Russia a "geopolitical foe" and make opposition to America a more productive political move for Russian politicians than cooperation.

Berating President Barack Obama for his commitment to the Reset policy with Russia might be the easy option but the Republicans need to start looking for constructive answers. Romney once said that a "president is not a foreign policy expert...[but] a leader who understands how to make difficult decisions." Perhaps we ought to question which "experts" he is listening to.

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