Guest Blogger Series
Being someone who lives in Europe and who writes professionally on Russia’s politics and foreign policy I cannot stop being amazed how Russia plays in this presidential campaign.
Reading America’s mainstream press one gets the impression that both Republicans and security-minded Democrats agree that Senator McCain is the candidate who can stand up against Russia’s revisionism and who is better prepared to handle Putin’s challenge. McCain was the one who unconditionally supported Georgia in the first hours of Russian aggression; McCain asked for expelling Russia from G-8; McCain advocated the creation of a League of Democracies that should “give hell” to all the autocrats around the world.
In short, reading the American press you would be inclined to believe that Moscow is terrified by the idea that McCain can be elected and that it prays for Obama’s victory.
“Obama is soft, he’s inexperienced and he’s… ready to talk to any and all autocrats in the world.”
The reality is quite different.
In May this year, British conservative paper Daily Telegraph did an opinion poll in seven European countries. The question was “For whom you would vote in the American elections?” Surprisingly, the survey showed that John McCain enjoyed more support in Russia than in any of the major European countries. (And support for McCain does not correlate with the opposition to Putin or the support for America).
But while Russian public opinion, if invited to vote on American elections still favors Obama by a small margin, the Kremlin’s elite with whom I have been discussing the coming American election are hard-core McCain supporters.
The well-known fact that Soviets have always preferred Republicans to the Democrats is not enough to explain “McCainmania” in the Kremlin. Russia’s elite preference for McCain has different sources but four of them are worth mentioning: namely, race, class, strategic calculation and a love for lobbyists.
In the spring during a visit to Moscow I had an opportunity to discuss at length the American elections with a senior Russian official. He was knowledgeable, well-educated and in his own words he starts his working day by checking RealClearPolitics. At the end of the conversation he asked me if I “really believed that Obama could be elected”. When I said yes, his reaction was hysterical.
“You should understand – this is not serious, we cannot negotiate nukes with a Black”.
Pure and simple racism explains to great extent Russia’s sympathy for McCain.
But race is not everything; there is also a class issue. Post-communist Russian elites who made their money mainly through corruption are extremely sensitive towards any criticism of the existing status quo. And for them any appeal to more egalitarian policies is nothing else than an expression of dangerous populism that, they fear, can spread all over the world. What the Kremlin does not like about Obama is his egalitarian rhetoric and the fact that he makes an issue about the rising inequalities of income.
But beyond race and class, the Kremlin has two more pragmatic reasons to prefer McCain over Obama. McCain has famously stated that when he looks in Putin’s soul he sees just three letters, KGB. There is no doubt that McCain hates what he saw. But Putin is not in the business of looking in his adversary’s soul: being a former KGB officer he looked in McCain’s entourage and he liked what he saw. He saw a lot of lobbyists and even better, lobbyists linked to some of his in-house oligarchs.
The strategic reason that makes the Kremlin pro-McCain is the fact that the policies that McCain advocates suit Putin’s Russia.
Russia’s strategy is to re-gain its status as world power through rhetorical confrontation with the West. In this sense, McCain’s tough rhetoric plays into the Kremlin’s hands, both domestically and internationally.
Domestically it helps Putin to convince the public that Russia is under siege, and internationally McCain’s toughness helps Russia to position itself as the challenger to America’s global hegemony. At the same time Moscow does not need to pay a price for its anti-Americanism, first, because America is overstretched and second, because in the current financial turmoil McCain’s toughness is nothing but rhetoric. There is no enthusiasm for a call economic sanctions and McCain’s uncritical support for Georgian President Michail Saakashvili does not go well in Europe.
In short, there is a lack of enthusiasm for McCain in Europe and there is a lack of realism in some of his policies. This creates the danger that if McCain were elected, Europe and America would split on how to deal with Russia – and this will be the Kremlin’s strategic victory.
So, the belief that McCain is the right President for dealing with Russia is not as widespread as many Americans believe. So, at least in my view, if Americans are really worried about Russia’s revisionism they had better vote for Obama, not McCain.
Of course, you also have the option of hanging your hopes on Sarah Palin. She is a hockey mom, plus, in her own words, a born expert on Russia.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist and Chair of Board of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. Since 2004 Mr. Krastev has been the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans chaired by the former Italian Premier Minister Giuliano Amato. He is the Director of the Open Century Project of the Central European University in Budapest.
His latest article “Russia and the European Order” will be published in the upcoming issue of The American Interest.