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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2012

Romney’s tough talk was just a birthday present for Putin

MIKE SIGOV
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Another Russian spy scandal broke out earlier this month, just in time for Mitt Romney’s recent address on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute.

Eight people, including the owner of a Texas firm and seven employees, were accused of illegally selling to Russia high-tech microelectronics that could be put to use in surveillance systems, radars, detonation triggers, and weapons-guidance systems. The arrest gave Mr. Romney a chance to save face after Obama campaign ads ridiculed him for calling Russia “without question, our number-one geopolitical foe” in May.

In his Virginia address, Mr. Romney vowed to have no “flexibility” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The GOP challenger was alluding to a private conversation about the contentious issue of missile defense that President Obama and then-lame-duck President Dmitry Medvedev were having at a nuclear summit in South Korea in March when a microphone inadvertently picked Mr. Obama’s words, “after my election, I have more flexibility.”

Russia’s espionage notwithstanding, the fact remains that after the Soviet Union’s downfall in 1991, Russia is but a regional power with considerable influence over Europe, mainly because of Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas. Yet its military is in shambles, and its gross domestic product is about an eighth of the United States’ GDP.

True, the Putin regime is a threat, but mainly a threat to its own people, who have been deprived of a functioning judicial system and parliament. And as long as Russia’s natural resources such as natural gas, oil, metals, timber, gold, and diamonds last, that will be the case.

To be sure, the Putin regime is trying to resuscitate the Russian military, but the country’s economy is simply no match to that of the United States, making the return to the arms race impossible. So there is no reason why a U.S. president can’t be flexible with Russia after President Obama’s obvious failure to “reset” the relations with Russia, which has continued — as Mr. Romney has correctly pointed out — to play a spoilsport role on every major issue the United States cares about, from Iran and Syria to missile defense.

Russia’s spoilsport role will likely continue as long as Mr. Putin is in power because he needs the United States as a scapegoat to justify his selective use of law to prosecute those who challenge his regime at home, both politically and economically.

Considering that Mr. Putin, who just turned 60, is in good health and just started a six-year term that theoretically can be followed by another six-year term, we are looking at at least 12 years of Russian meddling.

Those in Russia who may try to oppose Mr. Putin and eventually replace him could use a fighting chance, as opposed to tough rhetoric such as Mr. Romney’s that only helps Mr. Putin justify the further tightening of the screws at home.

No wonder Mr. Putin thanked the Republican nominee for calling Russia America’s “number-one geopolitical foe.”

“I am grateful to him [Romney] for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile-defense problems,” he told reporters in Moscow last month, according to RIA Novosti, an official Russian news agency. Russia chooses to see the Europe-based system as a threat; the United States maintains it is a shield against Iran, not Russia.

The only thing Mr. Putin could’ve wished for in regard to Mr. Romney’s gaffe is that it came around a time at which the Russian could consider it a present for his 60th birthday.

The bottom line is what the United States needs when it has to deal with Russia is pragmatism and flexibility — not tough rhetoric.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade. Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com or 419-724-6089.



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