Russia Watch: Is Russia’s Putin a secret fan of Mitt Romney?

The conventional wisdom is that the Kremlin would like to see Barack Obama back in the White House next year.

Just last month, President Putin told RT, the state-owned TV channel, that Obama was “a genuine person” who “really wants to change much for the better.”

But these platitudes fail to cover up the big picture.

To shore up his internal support, Putin has inflicted on Russians the kind of anti-American campaign not seen here since the Soviet era. With “foreign agents,” and “treason” the flavors of the political season, today’s Kremlin might be better off without an “Amerikanski partnyor” in the White House.

President Barack Obama meets with prime minister Vladimir Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Russia, July 7 2009. Photo: White House.

For Russia’s leaders, the Obama Administration has proved annoyingly adept at ignoring the growing stream of accusations that now come from official Moscow.

When Mitt Romney told CNN that Russia is the “No. 1 geostrategic foe of the United States,” I thought I could hear the cats purring in the Kremlin.

Yesss! Instead of being treated like an oversized Serbia with nukes, we finally get some respect! With Romney, we will be back to being eyeball to eyeball with the Americans!

On Monday night, in the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate, Obama mocked Romney for promoting Russia to “No.1 foe.” He said: “And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Romney shot back: “I have two clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I’m certainly not going say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election he’ll get more backbone.”

High fives in front of the big screen in Kremlin!

Mitt Romney. Photo: Mark Taylor

You see, Putin needs a “safe” enemy – one without a long land border with Russia, like you know who. The way he sees it, Americans are currently obsessed with China, bear no deep animosity to Russia, and, anyhow, have a hard time keeping two enemies in their heads at the same time.

So, for the Kremlin, Romney would play the useful role of the un-reconstructed Cold Warrior determined to subvert the divinely ordained state of autocratic rule in Russia.

But, equally important, Putin is embarking on a massive $770 billion, 10-year rearmament program for Russia’s armed forces.

Even for oil-rich Russia, this is no small sum. There is fierce competition for this budget money, notably from Russia’s swelling population of pensioners.

Last fall, Alexei Kudrin, Putin’s respected Finance Minister of 11 years, quit over this military spending plan. As recently as last week, he was criticizing the armaments spending program as wasteful. Kudrin estimates that Russia’s ballooning annual pension shortfall will hit $42 billion this year – 43 times the level of 2005.

To keep the military shopping list intact, Putin needs an external threat. And what better “enemy” than one that resonates with the Cold War era generation of pensioners?

“Despite the fact that Mr. Romney considers Russia enemy number one, if he is elected president of the U.S., certainly we, including me, will work with him as an elected head of state,” Putin said last month in Sochi.

“I am actually very grateful to him for formulating his position so clearly and freely,” Putin continued. “He has again confirmed the correctness of our position on missile defense problems.”

A few days later, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich told reporters: “If Romney wins, we may have to enlarge the defense budget.”

But, on the other hand, Putin appreciates Obama as “a genuine person.”


(Main photo, of Vladimir Putin:



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.