By Andrei P. Tsygankov
Crew members of the U.S. Navy's guided missile destroyer (not the presidential candidate!), USS John S. McCain, carry U.S. and Russian flags as they march during World War II victory celebrations in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok May 9, 2007. (Photo by Reuters)
Most Russians are indifferent to the U.S. presidential elections and don't expect better relations with America. One poll found that only 9 per cent of respondents think new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev should focus on improving the bilateral ties. Medvedev himself expressed desire to work with a "modern" U.S. leader rather than one ``whose eyes are turned back to the past.''
In the meantime, some Russian elites have voiced their support for Senator John McCain. This may seem surprising considering that McCain's Russia record includes warnings of "a creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism", accusations of Kremlin involvement in nuclear blackmail, energy imperialism, cyber attacks, as well as multiple calls to expel Russia from the G-8. Although the Arizona Senator has recently expressed willingness to cooperate with Moscow on nuclear issues, there is hardly any doubt that he remains one of the toughest (and most prejudiced) critics of Russia in the U.S. establishment.
Some Russian leaders would welcome McCain's election as confirmation that Russia must be more confrontational with the U.S.
Last week the Russian daily Izvestia published an article favoring McCain and explaining why he may be a better choice than Democrat Senator Barack Obama. The article argues that, however hawkish, Mr. McCain is more predictable. Even though he advocates tough policies toward Russia, he is straightforward and therefore won't confuse Russia (The image of a "straight shooter" cultivated by the Republican Senator's campaign managers in America seems to have been bought by the Russians as well). Besides, Russia is doing spectacularly well, while the United States loses one position in the world after another. Confronted with the American threat, Russia will only get stronger and consolidate its status of a sovereign great power.
Russian hard-liners are, of course, playing the public. The United States, while undoubtedly damaged by the Iraq war and the recent economic downturn, remains strong and attractive as an international partner. But Russian hawks in and around the Kremlin are a product of external threats, and they depend on an image of foreign enemy for their survival and prosperity. Much can be achieved by a small, well-organized group that possesses a powerful manipulation technique in a society of consumers, rather than citizens.
The hawks have worked hard to justify the need for greater military expenditures and a greater separation from the West in areas such as energy supplies and relations with the former Soviet states. According to them, Russia has fully recovered as a great power, and it does not need to seek the West's approval of its actions and intentions. Russia must now create energy cartels, exclusive military alliances and push the arrogant Americans out of Eurasia once and for all.
For instance, the recent influential volume Russkaya doktrina (the Russian doctrine) insisted on the toughest possible policy as the way toward restoring Russia's self-sufficient and imperial nature. Believers in a rapidly approaching decline of the West, the volume's authors projected the United States' retreat from Eurasia between 2010 and 2015 and called for a political, economic and military union in the manner of a Warsaw Pact with China, India, Iran and other non-Western nations.
The hawking philosophy has been often shared by Putin's former deputy head administration Igor Sechin, who is in control of the second largest state-owned oil company Rosneft and who has numerous allies in the media and political circles. However, the hawks have suffered important blows by not getting their candidate to the president's office and by losing some prominent positions as a result of Medvedev-Putin's government shake-up. The hard-liners are eager to stage their comeback, and having McCain in the White House suits their agenda. It is arguably even better than the threat of terrorism -- the enemy is more visible by providing everyday excuses to crack down on domestic openness and fortify external defenses.
Russian hawks remain a force to be reckoned with. To the American voters, however, their preference tells something important about Mr. McCain who is popular with the wrong people. Nationalist phobias in both Russia and America need each other, and they advocate similar objectives. Rather than concentrating on development of human potential, stronger social programs and improvement of people's life, their main concern is with rebuilding power and geopolitical influence. In the meantime, the world remains divided and prone to violence. The hard-liners on both sides will continue to get stronger if American and Russian societies are too weak to fight back.
Andrei P. Tsygankov is a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the San Francisco State University.