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Kremlin's pick

Roman Goncharenko / spOctober 30, 2012

Moscow is closely following the build-up to the US elections and has made no secret about its preference for Obama, though ties between the two countries haven’t been without problems during his presidency.

The street between Moscow river and the Kreml wall
Image: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Vladimir Putin isn't known to wax eloquent about the US. Rather, it's more common to hear Moscow take a swipe at Washington on a range of policy issues. But in a television interview in September, the Kremlin chief was full of praise for his counterpart in the White House, Barack Obama.

“I believe that he [Obama] is a decent person and he really wants to change a lot of things for the better,” Putin said.

Under Obama, there's been a positive change in the US-Russian relationship, Putin said. He singled out the nuclear arms control treaty signed by Moscow and Washington in 2010, as well as American support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization this year.

The Russian president also adopted a conciliatory tone on plans for the NATO missile defense shield, which Putin has described as one of the “key problems” between the two countries. Obama is a partner who “wants to honestly solve the problem,” he said.

Obama all the way

For Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Center, it's clear: were Putin able to vote in the US election on November 6, “then the Kremlin would vote for Obama,” he said.

Putin's predecessor Dmitry Medvedev was even more blatant in his admiration of the US president. He had a “real liking” for Obama, Medvedev said when he headed the Kremlin. He added that he hoped Obama would be able to continue in his job.

And it's not just Russia's leaders who'd like to see Obama at the helm in the US. In a survey commissioned by DW in Russia, 38 percent of the respondents said that Obama as president would be better for Russia. Only 4 percent said the same of his challenger, Republican Mitt Romney. The poll was conducted a month before the US elections.

Moscow-based polling institute WZIOM came to a similar result: 42 percent of those surveyed said they would welcome a second term for Obama.

Not all rosy

Obama is seen to have tried a “new approach” in reconfiguring relations with Russia. As opposed to his predecessor George W. Bush, he has avoided harshly criticizing Moscow. Obama's message seemed to be: Russia is a partner, not an enemy.

Obama dropped the Bush administration's plans to give NATO membership to former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. But Moscow too made an effort to reach out to Washington, allowing the US to use its territory for delivering supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

But Obama's lauded “new beginning” in US-Russia relations isn't seen to have been completely effective. Around 40 percent of Russians in the DW survey said ties between the two countries had actually worsened under Obama. Only 23 percent said relations had improved.

Growing tensions

On international issues in particular, Russia and the US have often taken opposing positions. For instance, Moscow has criticized the NATO-led operation in Libya and blocked resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council.

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a point during the final U.S. presidential debate
Obama views Russia as a partner, not an opponentImage: Reuters

But tensions have also emerged in their bilateral relationship. Moscow has hit back at any criticism from Washington about recent Russian parliamentary and presidential elections, saying it amounted to meddling in its internal affairs.

According to a new law in Russia, non-governmental organizations are labeled as “agents” if they accept money from foreign donors. The US is one of the biggest backers of the development of Russia's civil society. Yet, the US program USAID was forced to suspend its work in Russia by October 1 this year because authorities didn't extend its license.

Moscow has been especially incensed by the so-called Magnitsky list, a draft US law which foresees entry bans for Russian officials. They're meant to target officials whom the US holds responsible for the death of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009.

Romney a catastrophe?

Should Obama win the presidential elections in November, Moscow will be hoping to reach agreement on the key stumbling block between the two countries - the row over the planned NATO defense missile shield in Europe.

During a meeting with Russian then-President Medvedev, Obama said he would be much more “flexible” on the issue after the election. The statement wasn't meant to be public but it was caught on camera.

Obama's challenger, Mitt Romney used it during the campaign to accuse the president of taking too soft a stance against Russia. Romney said there would be “no flexibility” under him when it came to the NATO defense missile shield. The Republican described Russia as America's “geopolitical enemy number one.”

The comments haven't gone unnoticed in Russia. Sergei Rogov, a leading US expert in Moscow, said Romney's victory would have “catastrophic consequences” for US-Russian relations.

Mitt Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia
Romney is pushing a tougher attitude toward RussiaImage: Getty Images

That view is echoed by Dmitry Trenin from the Carnegie Center. Romney could be a much more difficult partner for Moscow than Obama, he said. But he added that Romney's actions wouldn't be as radical as they seem now. As president, Romney would be forced to temper his views and could well change his spots, Trenin said.