Mitt Romney may have been right about Russia: Last summer, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee declared in a speech that Russia is our “greatest geopolitical foe.” In a debate soon after, Barack Obama mocked that notion. “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida,” Obama said, teeing up one of the debate’s most often repeated lines: “The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
It wasn’t an entirely fair shot, given the way Obama slyly replaced the word “foe” with “threat,” which has a different connotation and distorted Romney’s point–which Vladimir Putin has proceeded to validate. In the months since, Putin has backed Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al Assad, long past the time Barack Obama declared that Assad has to go. He has cut off American adoptions of Russian children. He has expelled an alleged American CIA officer after an unusually public humiliation of the man. And now he has granted one year’s asylum to American’s most-sought after fugitive, Edward Snowden. In response, Obama is threatening to skip a planned September summit with the Russian leader.
The Cold War may be over. But America’s relationship with Russia is about as warm as a Siberian pool party. And there’s not much Obama can do about it. Some commentators are urging him to “man up and punch back.” But Putin is not an easily intimidated man. Indeed some close observers openly wonder if he’s altogether rational. One former senior Bush administration official recently described Putin to me as having transformed from confidence to arrogance to outright megalomania. (That’s not to mention the well-publicized, often-shirtless “nonsense jackassery.”)
And much like China, Russia simply isn’t a country America can bend to its will. Especially not when oil, one of the country’s prime exports, are well over $100 a barrel, giving Russia the cash and comfort to project. And especially when America’s reputation around the world remains, shall we say, problematic.
As for Snowden, who knows what behind-the-scenes argument played out between Washington and Moscow. It’s possible that the battle for the NSA leaker became a proxy for any number of grievances, from Syria to trade the fate of suspected spies in one or both capitals. It was undoubtedly a fierce tug of war, one that America lost, and one that will send relations into an even deeper frost. Somewhere, Mitt Romney might be chuckling. When it comes to Russia, the joke is no longer on him.