As an exception, perhaps, to the general rule, most Russians are not closely following the U.S. presidential campaign. Russian society today is not particularly interested in politics, even Russian politics, and U.S. election campaigns are too long and complicated to make many media headlines here. Besides, a consensus holds that U.S. policy toward Moscow does not depend on which party controls the White House; policy, most assume, is guided by more fundamental U.S. national interests.
As for the Russian political class and the academic community, every U.S. presidential election raises the question: “Who is better for us—or who is the lesser evil—Republicans or Democrats?” On this question today Russian observers of U.S. politics are divided into two groups. The first believes that Democrats are generally softer on Russia, less predisposed to unilateralism and power projection abroad, and hence easier partners for the Kremlin. The second argues that Republicans are more pragmatic and realistic, perhaps tougher on certain matters but more predictable and reliable, as well. The history of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relations seems to support the second viewpoint, but this evidence is not regarded as decisive in contemporary discussions, particularly because the 2008 campaign has turned out to be different from those of the past.
First of all, the campaign has been more spectacular than usual. The Democratic primary race could have almost been scripted by Hollywood—full of strong characters, dramatic scenes, heightened emotion and lots of intrigue. Russians watched Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on their televisions, guessing about whether the United States is ready to elect a female or an African American as president. Second, the 2008 campaign overlapped with the political transition in Russia itself, inviting Russians to guess about how the new President Dmitri Medvedev might cope with those vying to succeed George W. Bush.
Liberals in Moscow hoped that a new generation of leaders in both Russia and the United States would make U.S.-Russian relations anew, maybe even begin a new era in global politics. Hardliners in and around the Kremlin tacitly expressed confidence that the U.S. political establishment would never allow Obama to run the country; they bet on John McCain and anticipated a further deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. But then came the crisis in the south Caucasus, and much suddenly changed.
The brief but dramatic Russo-Georgian War has had a profound impact on predominant Russian views of U.S. goals and intentions toward Russia. The majority here considers the U.S. position in the crisis to be biased, hypocritical and unfair to Russia. Many opinion makers argue, too, that the Georgian leadership was nothing more than a puppet in the hands of the U.S. Administration, and that the United States therefore deserves a significant share of responsibility for the bloodshed in South Ossetia. Indeed, in his August 28, 2008 CNN interview, Prime Minister Putin went even further, directly linking the crisis to the U.S. presidential campaign. His logic was that, in order to stay in power, the Republican Party generated an international crisis to undermine the “soft” Democratic candidate. Putin’s conspiracy theory was supported and broadly publicized by the Kremlin-controlled media. John McCain’s rise in U.S. opinion polls in August confirmed the theory, as many Russians saw it.
Putin’s use of the U.S. election for domestic political purposes, even as he accused the Republicans of the same kind of manipulation, is surely the most dramatic and unexpected turn of events in terms of how the U.S. election has played in Russia. Putin’s popularity has enabled his theory to gain more widespread credibility than would otherwise have been the case. But it has also raised a question whose importance transcends U.S. electoral politics: Does Putin really believe this theory? In the answer lies the critical distinction between delusion and cynicism. Neither is particularly encouraging.