Russia Profile
February 3, 2012
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: United States Looms Large in Russian Elections
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Eric Kraus, Dick Krickus, Edward Lozansky, Alexander Rahr, Alexandre Strokanov, Andrei Tsygankov
[DJ: Follow US Ambassador Michael McFaul here:]

The new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul got off to a rocky start on his second day on the job by hosting a meeting with Russian opposition leaders at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (actually, the meeting was set up for the visiting Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, while Ambassador McFaul played the host according to the diplomatic protocol). Is the United States looming large in Russia's presidential elections? How serious is the "U.S. factor" in influencing Russian voters' preferences? Is Putin's tactic of whipping up anti-American hysteria actually paying off for his presidential campaign? Is there, or will there be a "Russian factor" in the U.S. presidential race?

McFaul was immediately vilified in the Kremlin-controlled media, particularly on two popular nightly television shows, for having come to Moscow to engage in "democracy promotion" and "preparing for an 'Orange revolution' in Russia," as opposed to routine diplomatic work, with one commentator questioning McFaul's competence in Russian affairs and another threatening the new U.S. ambassador with a boycott by Russian government officials. Ambassador McFaul is, indeed, one of the leading U.S. experts in democracy and democratic transitions. His latest book is titled "Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can."

Although meetings with Russian opposition leaders are part of the so called "dual-track approach" by the Barack Obama administration, the timing of this event two weeks ago was somewhat awkward, and many observers questioned the wisdom of both U.S. government officials for convening it and the Russian opposition figures for attending it.

Russia is in the middle of a tumultuous presidential campaign marked by serious street protests in Moscow against the allegedly fraudulent Duma elections last December, and many of the opposition leaders who visited the U.S. Embassy are actually trying to lead the fledgling protest movement.

The Kremlin has sought to discredit the protest movement by painting it as a paid vehicle for Washington's designs to overthrow Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government through an "Orange revolution." Putin personally accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the anti-government protests that swept through Moscow and other Russian cities.

The U.S. Embassy meetings with Russian opposition figures played nicely into the Kremlin's plans to portray the opposition and Moscow protest leaders as American stooges, providing nationally televised footage of their "receiving instructions from Washington." A senior member of the United Russia party said on January 24 that ambassador McFaul is trying to fuel a revolution by meeting with opposition leaders.

The Kremlin rushed to use this to confirm for ordinary Russians Putin's insidious claims that the protests were not so much against him and his rule, but a Washington plan against Russia as a great power. United Russia members in the Duma have even sought to launch a counterintelligence investigation into the meeting of Just Russia Party leaders Oksana Dmitrieva and Gennady Gudkov with U.S. Embassy officials.

Although President Dmitry Medvedev in his public comments at Moscow State University largely exonerated McFaul by saying that meeting with opposition figures was a routine occurrence, even he warned the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow that he is on Russian soil and should respect Russian political sensibilities.

Putin has actively sought to play the anti-America card in his presidential campaign, believing it is a trusted tool in whipping up support for his candidacy, particularly in the provinces. The United States "wants to control everything" and takes decisions unilaterally on key questions, Putin said on a campaign stop last week in the Siberian city of Tomsk. "Sometimes I get the impression the United States doesn't need allies, it needs vassals," he said.

Is the United States looming large in Russia's presidential elections? How serious is the "U.S. factor" in influencing Russian voters' preferences? Is Putin's tactic of whipping up anti-American hysteria actually paying off for his presidential campaign? How will the "U.S. factor" in Russian elections impact the "reset" and the U.S.-Russian relations beyond the presidential elections of 2012 in both countries? Is there, or will there be a "Russian factor" in the U.S. presidential race?

Alexander Rahr, Director, Bertohld Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin

The United States should worry more about the failure of the "Arab spring" than about Russia. One year ago, the Western world felt great enthusiasm for the protests in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. Democracy seemed to have been on the rise again. Now the West is threatened with the rise of radical Islamism in North Africa.

The Obama administration understands well that given the dangerous tendencies in the Arab world, it needs to strengthen its global strategic partnership with Russia. Moscow must be seated in the Western boat regarding sanctions against Iran and Syria, otherwise Russia could start obstructing Western policies in the Middle East (with China).

Eric Kraus, Private Fund Manager, Moscow

One should first ask what the reaction would have been in the United States if the British ambassador to Washington began his mandate by throwing an open house for "Occupy Wall Street" ­ it would have been considered a hostile act. Why is Russia any different? Russia is a sovereign state, not a protectorate, and the job of any ambassador is to facilitate state-to-state relations, not to become a player in domestic politics.  

The United States transparently uses the promotion of "democracy" as a tool for its foreign policy. Countries friendly to Washington tend to be deemed either "democratic" or "special situations." This includes brutal and dangerous dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia ("dangerous" because of its funding of extremist Muslim groups the world over, many of which seek to install regimes openly hostile to the West). Saudi Arabia is, of course, vital to American energy policy, and thus there is precious little danger that the next American ambassador to Riyadh begins his term by meeting with a group of Shia dissidents.

NGOs have served as willing tools in the attempt by Western governments to bring about regime change in countries unfriendly to the West. The British were caught red-handed in the "fake-rock" scandal; initially airily dismissed by London as nonsense. London has now acknowledged that the fake rock disguising a sophisticated transmitter was indeed used to covertly manage UK-funded NGOs operating in Russia. Again, one wonders what the reaction would have been if it became public knowledge in the UK that major British pressure groups were covertly funded by the Kremlin. Similarly, one of the very prominent figures in Russian opposition politics has been trained and funded by the soothingly named National Endowment for Democracy (NED) ­ a nominally non-governmental organization run by the neoconservative faction in Washington. While denying it would ever meddle in Russian domestic politics, the NED rushed to take credit for the "Orange Revolution" after the fact.

Clearly, any American politician caught taking money from Kremlin-controlled organizations would ­ at best ­ see his political career dramatically foreshortened; likewise, it is most unlikely that an American political organization caught receiving funding and instructions from the Kremlin would be allowed to continue operation. It is thus a cause for some bewilderment why the Russian government does not impose an outright ban on foreign funding of political structures working within the Russian Federation, demanding some measure of financial transparency from the domestic entities.

As far as the use of anti-American rhetoric, most Western commentary regarding the Russian Duma elections has chosen to ignore an obvious but very inconvenient truth: the winners were the communist and nationalist parties ­ not the liberals, who were crushed. The new Duma Foreign Affairs Committee thus has a far more leftist orientation than the old one did, and has delayed sine die further consideration of bills to facilitate visas and business relations with the United States (surprisingly, we have yet to hear this praised as "democracy in action").

Given that U.S. foreign policy is opposed to Russia on numerous fronts ­ from Eastern Europe, to Iran, to the Middle East ­ it is hardly surprising that the United States is deeply unpopular in Russia. There is some symmetry here: since British and American candidates have made a great deal of political hay by criticizing Russia on the campaign trail, it seems only fair that Putin should have now turned the tables on them. The misnamed "reset" is essentially dead; however, there is no reason that the United States and Russia cannot maintain constructive, businesslike diplomatic relations based upon mutual respect, not dominance.

Andrei P. Tsygankov, Professor, International Relations/Political Science, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA

There is no doubt that the United States seeks to play a major role in Russia's presidential elections and post-election developments. The democracy promotion discourse is not just an ideology that helps to consolidate the American political class, but also an important tool for pressuring non-Western powers for political and economic concessions.

Two prominent lobbyist groups ­ neoconservatives and neoliberals ­ deserve a special mention. Neocons are directly associated with the U.S. security establishment and advocate democracy promotion as necessary for remaining the world's only superpower. Although to neoliberals, democracy is more than merely a tool for enhancing security: in practice, the two groups frequently endorse a militaristic foreign policy agenda and converge on Russia policy. They have published in the same outlets, participated in joint actions against the Kremlin ­ including signing open letters to denounce the Russian state ­ organized conferences and training for Russia's pro-American politicians, and consulted anti-Russian government officials in Europe and Eurasia.

Over the last two years, the United States and Russia have been moving in opposite directions on issues from the missile defense system in Europe to Middle Eastern transformations. The "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations is stalled, and the United States is facing a choice of whether to add pressure on Russia or accept some of the Kremlin's demands. Michael McFaul in Moscow is a sign of the former, not the latter. An important voice within the neoliberal establishment, he has worked to undermine the Russian state since the early 2000s. His views on Russia's political system and the colored revolutions, his extensive contacts ­ especially with those favoring Russia's pro-American transformation ­ and the support that he enjoys within neoconservative circles in Washington position him well to informally coordinate voices of protest in Moscow and steer their demands in the U.S.-favored direction.  

The United States' ability to influence Moscow also has to do with the Kremlin's actions. The latter tends to make Russia more, not less, vulnerable to U.S. influence. In the post-Soviet era, Russia did little to revive its traditional values, including Christian faith, trans-ethnic unity, and just government. It is these values and their promotion at home that make a nation's development irreversible and a revolution impossible. Russia's officials, however, have all but abandoned nation-building in favor of protecting the interests of narrow elite groups.

This is the reason why Putin's attempts to call the United States on exploiting the democracy promotion rhetoric for power advantages tend to fall on death ears. The protesters don't want to hear what to them sounds like just another excuse to continue with stealing votes and enriching the Kremlin's clans. Keeping Vladimir Churov in place, replacing Vladislav Surkov with Vyacheslav Volodin, and disqualifying Grigory Yavlinsky (and his observers) all seem to point in one direction: the regime is determined to secure Putin's victory in the first round. The fear is that the second round may open space for uncertainty and possible external manipulations. Just the opposite may happen: the less than decisive "victory" may broaden the protest inside the country and provide the United States with ammunition to pressure Russia.

As an American saying goes, two wrongs don't make it right. The United States has a long way to go in learning how to respect a difference. As to the Kremlin, it must learn new ways to defend Russia's sovereignty, which have to do with ideas and values, and not just weapons and petrodollars. No less importantly, the Kremlin must learn to trust the Russian people, the majority of whom choose Putin over his opponents any time of the day.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Chair of Social Science Department, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT

The U.S. government undoubtedly has a serious interest in the Russian presidential election. It is clear that the American political establishment, both Democratic and Republican, is not happy with the prospect of Vladimir Putin's return to the position of Russian president. However, does this mean that the so-called "December events" in Russia were orchestrated from Washington?

Yes, such a possibility cannot be completely ruled out. The strategy in this case would be to spread doubt regarding the transparency and fairness of the Russian electoral process in general, place the United Russia Party under an avalanche of accusations about falsification of the State Duma election and thereby jeopardize the party's activity for nominating Vladimir Putin as the presidential candidate. As a result, even if Vladimir Putin wins the presidential election because of his popularity among the Russian people, he will be weakened and consequently become less of a threat to Washington. In particular, such a chain of events might even be sufficient to distract him from his goal of building the potential Eurasian Union. For the successful implementation of such plan, there would certainly need to be people inside Russia like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov, and Evegniya Chirikova, who were assigned to usurp the anti-fraud protests and redirect them gradually from United Russia to anti-Putin sentiments.Every country has its national interests to consider, and right now the Obama administration is trying to make decisions that will work to the benefit of the United States. The meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow is routine, but also very interesting.

I think that the people working in the U.S. State Department clearly understand, or at least they should understand, that the major opposition force in Russia and the major opponent of Vladimir Putin is the Communist Party and its leader Gennady Zyuganov. Therefore, if the United States was interested in meeting with Putin's opponents, Zyuganov would have been at the top of the list. Nobody at this meeting represented the second major oppositional force in the State Duma ­ Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party.

All of this obviously suggests that this was not intended to be a meeting with parliamentarian opposition, but with a limited circle of people who have common interests with, or especially wanted to meet with, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

I really have a hard time understanding what brought out State Duma deputies like Dmitrieva and Ponomarev, who are members of the Just Russia party, to the meeting. They were interested in participating, and a reader may speculate about the common interests and the real intentions of all sides involved. I am sure for Burns it was promoting American national interests. Dmitrieva and Ponomarev declined to comment, and this is exactly what sparked even more speculation.

The most unfortunate point here is that all this meddling in Russian affairs is just a waste of American taxpayers' money during a very difficult time for their own country. I wish these millions of dollars that were spent on the so-called Russian opposition would be better spent on improvements to American education about Russia. For any objective observer or specialist on Russia, it is absolutely clear that attempts to sponsor a new "color revolution" are doomed from the start.

Will all of this have an effect on the results of the presidential election in Russia? I seriously doubt it. Here I agree with ambassador McFaul. The Russian people are well educated and smart enough to see through all of these political games, and can distinguish between the electoral rhetoric of the presidential candidates and the actual policy that they will implement once elected to the position.

Negative rhetoric toward Russia in U.S. elections and similar rhetoric toward the United States in Russian elections has unfortunately become a norm of electoral campaigns in both countries. While this is a norm that poisons the relations between these two countries, neither of the sides involved seems willing to break with it. It may actually be the result of poor knowledge about each other that Russian and American people still seem to suffer from.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and the United States-Russia Forum in Washington, DC

It is true that the United States indeed looms large in Russia's presidential elections and no one doubts that Washington does not want to see Putin back in the Kremlin. However, for both moral and practical reasons, the United States should stay as far away from these elections as possible. I understand that using the word "moral" in the same breath as politics smacks of an oxymoron. Still, looking at the current and previous American campaigns, especially presidential ones, their high standard that might qualify them as a shining example to other nations is surely open to doubt. A great, exciting show they are, but ­ exemplary?

I am writing this after the Florida primaries ­ and what do we hear? According to many political commentators, Mitt Romney's victory over Newt Gingrich was the result of "carpet bombing" with highly negative and smearing ads. Romney spent around $17 million throwing dirt at his opponent, while Gingrich could muster only $4 million to fight back ­ and lost. The real issues ­ economy, security, and foreign policy play secondary role. The amount of raised money takes precedent, and now there is practically no limit on contributions.

Is this the type of elections that we want to teach the Russians through "democracy promotion" programs funded by U.S. taxpayers?

On the practical side, whenever U.S. government officials try helping Putin's opponents through grants or public statements, the effect they achieve is directly the opposite.

Putin's popularity ratings went down after December massive protest rallies, but after the embarrassing U.S. Embassy reception for the opposition, plus the British "spy stone" scandal, his ratings bounced back and are still rising.

As for this reception I see McFaul as the victim rather than the perpetrator of this embarrassment. Yes, he loves to meet with Russian opposition figures. During U.S. presidents' visits to Moscow he advised them to attend such meetings. He has frequently done so himself as Obama's advisor on Russia. All that is on the record, but meeting the opposition on the first or second day in his new post in the Spaso House and in the middle of a highly emotional Russian presidential campaign?

William Burns, who is one of the most qualified American diplomats, wouldn't recommend creating a potentially huge and embarrassing conflict with the Kremlin leaders, whom Washington will have to deal with for at least six years to come.

I strongly suspect that it was Hillary Clinton herself who presumably ordered this reception ­ as a poke in Putin's eye for his charge that the recent rallies in Moscow in the wake of elections to the Duma had been inspired and in part instigated by the Secretary and other "democracy promoters" in Washington. If this is the case, Putin should thank Clinton for her extraordinary help with the ratings.

In short, let the Russians themselves decide the fate of their country. The United States and other Western countries should concentrate on developing a positive and productive security and economic cooperation agenda with Russia's leaders elected by the Russian people with no outside interference. I also want to thank Pat Buchanan for reminding us of a line from Thomas Jefferson: "We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country."

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

America does loom somewhat in Russian elections. But not in a form which is beneficial to genuine long-term American interests in the region.

Before we proceed, a brief commentary regarding the context. Frolov makes the assertion that the December Duma elections were "fraudulent." This is presented as a proven fact, and is not accurate.

Two months after the election there is still no hard evidence of electoral fraud of a scale, which would substantially affect the composition of the Duma. Zhirinovsky' assertions during the recent Duma session with government representatives are just bombast. In any modern lawful inquest, the burden of proof is on the accusers. In December, 60 million Russian citizens voted in approximately 94 thousand precincts. In mass democracies of such scale, anywhere in the world, including the paragon of many ­ the United States ­ a significant presence of error and possible intentional distortion is statistically inevitable.

No election anywhere with tens of millions of votes is immune, and no election will be perfect. At present there are many Americans who fervently claim that Obama is foreign-born, which would make the 2008 U.S. presidential election fraudulent.

The U.S. Supreme Court in fact decided the U.S. presidential election of 2000, and there are persistent rumors that John Kennedy did not properly win against Richard Nixon in 1960. These are just a few examples ­ American political history, as a case, is full of narratives about electoral manipulations since the times of the Continental Congress. "Gerrymandering" is a particularly American electoral invention, as are "pocket boroughs" in the UK.

In Russia, the much-ballyhooed "Churov's list" contains 88 persons and 31 precincts ­ hardly a scale capable of throwing a federal election. It is notable that the highly vocal "outsiders against election fraud" recently refused to meet at a round table with journalists, politicians and representatives of the party United Russia to discuss the allegations of election fraud ­ could it be that their claims cannot withstand cross-examination?

Regarding America's presence in Russian elections, one must regret that Washington continues to formulate Russia policy in blissful and apparently willing ignorance of Russian realities, and in particular of America's image inside Russia. This defect does not only apply to Russia ­ historically U.S. policymakers have chosen to be indifferent to public opinion about the United States inside foreign countries. This approach worked in the early years of the North American republic, when the United States was mostly irrelevant in the grand policies of the world; and later, when American overriding power made irrelevant foreign public opinion about America.

However, the world has changed. Russian public opinion about the United States does matter, at least inside Russia. This perception of the United States is shaped by the 60-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia; by the deaths or mistreatment of Russian children adopted in the United States; by the advance of NATO eastward; by the plans to deploy American ABM systems near Russian borders; by My Lai and Abu Ghraib, by leaked cables and e-mails of U.S. diplomats; by air strikes in Libya; by U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies ­ in the worldwide splendor of YouTube.

McFaul's meeting with Russian communists (who by the way remain proud of Stalin), social-democrats and others two days after arriving in Moscow was a big mistake, which will continue to have repercussions in Russia harmful to genuine American interests. In a period when Russian government consensus is needed in grave matters elsewhere in the world, to play games with Russian internal politics in the mode of the 1990s seems irresponsible. Is Washington again missing the boat?

Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

"How serious is the 'U.S. factor' in influencing Russian voters' preferences?" This question is being asked against the backdrop of Michael McFaul's appointment as U.S. ambassador to Russia. Hard-liners claim that this former Stanford professor and author of a provocative book ­ "Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can" ­ was selected to promote regime change in Russia. This accusation, in turn, explains the assaults on him, orchestrated by the media and government officials ever since his arrival in Moscow.

In its campaign against McFaul, Russian television has taken the gloves off in assaulting Washington. It scolds Obama for not providing Russia with a role in the much-publicized American missile defense system, for blatantly supporting the "irrational" Mikhail Saakashvili, and for destabilizing the entire Middle East via the U.S.-inspired "Arab Spring."

At the same time, Putin-watchers claim that his surging anti-American rhetoric ­ with the help of the maniacal Dmitry Rogozin ­ is meant for a domestic, not a foreign audience. Consider in this connection Putin's assertion that Clinton has "inspired" the anti-government protestors; that McFaul's support for the "reset" is merely a fig leaf to hide his enmity toward Moscow; and that Obama, like George Bush, deems Russia an American "vassal." Such attacks win votes in Russia's heartland just like similar paranoia works in behalf of American candidates in Dixie.

Nikolai Zlobin of the Washington-based World Security Institute has observed: "His foreign policy is not more anti-American than that of many international leaders that speak of America very positively." This view has many supporters among Russia-watchers who opine that once Putin is reelected president in March, he will dial-back his anti-Americanism and get about the important business of finding areas of cooperation with Washington.

Perhaps! But there is another explanation for Putin's crusade: he really believes the American ruling elite is seeking regime change in Moscow much as it did in Tbilisi, Cairo, and Tripoli, is doing in Damascus and tried to do in Kiev. If Putin is convinced of this, it is a truly ominous development. Such paranoia could foster irrational policies and misperceptions that precipitate friction between Moscow and Washington during a turbulent year of dual presidential elections.

Of course, the notion that the U.S. is seeking regime change in Russia is groundless. If it occurs, it will be a consequence of actions taken by the Russian people and their rulers. Security analysts in Washington do not believe that Russia represents an existential threat to the United States. Obama is committed to the "reset" and McFaul was one of its most forceful supporters in the White House.

Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican to be Obama's rival in this year's presidential election, has opposed the "reset." In the process, he has ignored the perilous impact it will have on U.S. warriors in Afghanistan, whose supply lines run through Russia's land corridors and air space. But insofar as Russia is concerned, if elected, he most likely will embrace policies more consistent with the realists in the GOP than members of the party's lunatic fringe that has opposed his nomination.

Finally, serious U.S. strategists are relying upon Russia and other major powers to partner with Washington­as stakeholders, if not allies ­ to address common international threats. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a man whose name does not produce smiles on the faces of the Kremlin overlords, has urged Washington to maintain close relations with Russia as part of a grand U.S. strategy to strengthen ties to Europe while doing the same thing to promote stability in Asia.

If Putin really believes that Obama seeks to expel him from power, he is living in a world of fantasy. This insight may explain why through its high risk support for a brutal Syrian dictator in the UN ­ Assad's days are numbered ­ the Kremlin is rebuffing the Arab League and alienating most of the Arab street.