This comment first submitted to the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel (March 21, 2008)
When it comes to Russia, the differences among the US presidential candidates are so slight that there is little reason for Russians to prefer one over another.
Senator McCain's foreign policy advisory team mixes "realists" Robert McFarlane, Brent Scowcroft, Stephen E. Biegun, Lorne W. Craner, Richard Armitage, and Henry Kissinger with neo-con "hawks" Max Boot, R. James Woolsey, Niall Ferguson, Robert Kagan and William Kristol.
This combination is likely to produce the same sort of intellectual schizophrenia that it did at the outset of the Reagan administration. During its first two years initiatives were generated opportunistically within the NSC and the CIA, culminating in the spectacular but ultimately pointless sabotage in June 1982 of the new trans-Siberian gas pipeline. Ronald Reagan eventually put a stop to these dangerous shenanigans in April 1983 and dramatically changed his thinking, thanks in no small part to Suzanne Massie, who helped him develop an appreciation for the culture and religiosity of the Russian people.
Senator McCain, however, shows little sign of developing the intellectual flexibility or personal empathy that Ronald Reagan was famous for. His foreign policy toward Russia is therefore likely to drift listlessly between overt hostility and grudging tolerance.
On the Democratic side, I would not dismiss Senator Clinton's chances of becoming president. Her senior foreign policy advisors, Madeleine K. Albright, Richard C. Holbrooke, Strobe Talbott, like those of Senator McCain, are all from a generation that dealt either with a weak and rudderless USSR, or a weak and vulnerable Russia. It was largely under their leadership that Washington stopped paying any attention to Russia at all, so perhaps it is an indication of things to come that, with the exception of Steven Sestanovich, Senator Clinton's advisory team seems unusually light when it comes to expertise on Russia.
Senator Obama says he represents "change," but there is very little of it to be seen among his Russia advisors--Zbigniew Brzezinski and his son Mark, W. Anthony Lake, Dennis B. Ross, and Michael Mcfaul.
In his latest interview on Echo of Moscow radio (March 8, 2008) Zbigniew Brzezinski calls president-elect Dmitry Medvedev a "nominal leader," compares Putin to Mussolini, dismisses Russian security concerns as "paranoia," and refers to NATO as "the dividing line between the Atlantic community and Russia." Later, in the same interview, Brzezinski draws a distinction between young Russians and "the dinosaurs" still in power. Bafflingly, he fails to see how appropriate this label would be to his own thinking.
For now, the dinosaurs are firmly in control of US foreign policy toward Russia, on both the Republican and the Democratic side. Senior advisors from all three campaigns took part in the March 2006 Council on Foreign Relations report, "Russia's Wrong Direction," co-chaired by Jack Kemp and John Edwards.
Criticized by Russian commentators as hopelessly out of touch with today's Russia, it remains, nevertheless, the touchstone of US thinking about Russia. So long as that is true, the only thing to expect from US policy toward Russia is a further slide into irrelevancy. The initiative for change, it seems, will have to come from Russia.