US President Barack Obama famously told the Kremlin earlier this year that he’d have more “flexibility” dealing with Russia should he win a second term and be freed from the constraints of reelection concerns.
With Obama’s victory in Tuesday’s US presidential election, the next four years will show whether the American president can make good on this assertion.
Obama’s “flexibility” comment to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March—which unbeknownst to the two officials was picked up by a live microphone—was in reference to US plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe, which the Kremlin bitterly opposes.
But with Republicans keeping control of the US House of Representatives following nationwide Congressional elections Tuesday, Obama may have little room to accommodate the Kremlin on missile defense, said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
House Republicans have vehemently opposed sharing possible classified information with the Russians on missile defense in order to ease the Kremlin’s concern that the shield would weaken its strategic deterrence capabilities.
“The constellation of political forces remains about the same” on the missile defense issue following Tuesday’s election, Kuchins said.
“The other side of the equation is: To what extent are the Russians more or less interested in cooperating on missile defense today than they were a few years ago?” Kuchins said.
Obama’s ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, told The Moscow Times on Wednesday that the United States would move forward with its plans to build the missile shield, which America and its allies say is meant to defend against a possible attack by Iran.
McFaul added, however, that he believed pragmatism rather than “public posturing” would prevail in talks over missile defense, the newspaper reported.
Missile defense is one of several bilateral issues that will carry over into Obama’s second term, analysts say.
The ongoing civil war in Syria, for example, has sharply divided the two countries, with the United States insisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and Russia warning that Assad’s ouster by armed opposition groups could plunge the country—and the region—into further chaos.
“It’s not clear what either side thinks the appropriate outcome in Syria is,” said James Collins, a former US ambassador to Russia under President Bill Clinton and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Washington.
The two countries also have crucial business to take care of on issues related to economic ties, Kuchins and Collins noted.
With Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August, both the Obama administration and Republicans favor granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status to Russia as required by WTO rules for member states. But there is a push by Republicans to tie the granting PNTR status to the so-called Magnitsky Act, draft legislation that would punish Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses.
The Kremlin has accused the United States of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs with the Magntisky Act, and the Obama administration, which has publicly opposed the measure, has said the US State Department already has controls in place to punish officials and individuals who commit rights abuses.
“We’ll hopefully have an indication of where Congress is regarding Russia soon in the lame duck [Congressional] session if Russia’s PNTR status comes up, which they’ll have to vote on,” Kuchins said.
Obama made the so-called “reset” of relations with Russia following the rocky bilateral ties under his predecessor, George W. Bush, a foreign policy priority when he took office four years ago. The drive to improve relations has taken a hit over the past two years in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings and US criticism of Russia’s democratic institutions.
But McFaul told The Moscow Times on Wednesday that the second Obama administration will try to build on several gains under the “reset policy,” including strategic arms reductions and bilateral agreements on visas and adoptions.
“The next phase is not that clear-cut,” McFaul told the newspaper. “It has to do with a hundred little small things, and it’s hard to keep our governments focused on a hundred small things.”
Collins said the most important step the two sides could take in a second Obama term, however, is to set a clear agenda for cooperation.
Obama has an opportunity to explore a new agenda with Russian President Vladimir Putin, “but I think he’s going to be a realist,” Collins said. “It will take two sides to define that agenda and then do something about it.”
The most significant achievement in a second Obama term, however, would be a rapprochement on the missile defense issue, Collins said.
“I think it’s possible to come to an agreement,” he said. “Whether there will be the political will or interest on either side is an open question.”
The US president may get an opportunity to discuss these issues with Putin next year. The Russian president on Wednesday congratulated Obama on his victory and “confirmed his invitation” to his American counterpart to visit Russia next year, the Kremlin said in a statement.
McFaul told the respected Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy on Tuesday that Obama would like to visit Russia but gave no specifics on when such a visit might take place.
Medvedev chimed in on Obama’s victory as well on Wednesday, delivering a jab to the president’s opponent in the election, Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who described Russia this year as the United States “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
Addressing reporters in Vietnam, Medvedev, now Russia’s prime minister, said he was “happy the president of such a major and very influential state won’t be someone who considers Russia enemy No. 1.”
“That is ludicrous,” Medvedev added. “It’s some kind of paranoia.”