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10 September, 2012

Following Reagan

Mitt Romney offers a more aggressive tone in relations with Russia and plans to focus more on the problems of Central and Eastern Europe

With Mitt Romney now formally selected as the Republican Party’s candidate for president of the United States, foreign governments—including that of Ukraine—are pondering how U.S. policy toward their regions might be affected, should he go on to win the general election. U.S. voters, including those in the Ukrainian-American community, are examining differences between the candidates, as well.  Though their interests extend far beyond the foreign policy planks of the respective candidates’ platform.

For Ukrainian-Americans, interest in this campaign is primarily focused on domestic issues.  As Bill Clinton’s political advisors continually reminded him, “It is the economy, stupid.” President Obama is calling for greater government “investment” in schools and technology and higher taxes on the wealthy.  The Romney-Ryan ticket promises to abolish the president’s expensive new health care entitlement, bringing federal spending under control and reduce excessive regulation on business.

Ukrainian-Americans are not terribly visible in U.S. politics despite their number – over 1,000,000. Many of them say the diaspora could have done more, and doubtless they could. Those who live in “toss-up” states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, could be in a position to make the difference in a close election. 

Many Ukrainians, especially the older generation, care deeply about U.S. policy toward Ukraine, as well as its dealing with Eastern and Central Europe more generally. They read the candidates’ speeches, watch for foreign policy pronouncements, note who is advising them.  In short, they try to read the tea leaves to predict what a President Romney’s foreign policy might be. And, in the case of President Obama’s, they can assess the same leaves in light of his foreign policy track record over the last three years.

Many feel that, during Mr. Obama’s tenure, Ukraine has gotten short shrift. His focus has been on the “reset” with Moscow, producing, perhaps inevitably, a benign neglect toward other ex-Soviet countries.  The suspicion that the administration regards these nations as somehow less valuable than Russia was reinforced in July 2009, when Vice President Joe Biden visited Ukraine and Georgia. Biden’s visit came two weeks after President Obama’s visit to Moscow, and was taken as an indication that the White House had downgraded its relationship with these two countries.

During his visit, Biden correctly rejected Russia’s claims to a 19th-century-style sphere of influence. However, he fell short in addressing the national security concerns of both states. He also hurt the re-election chances of Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and President Yushchenko, publicly berating them for their administration’s corruption and mismanagement. Instead, Mr. Yanukovych was elected – and the rest is history.

The Obama Administration did not protest when Kyiv signed the Kharkiv accords, leasing the Sevastopol base in exchange for natural gas discount from Gazprom. Nor did the U.S. go out of its way to support the Comprehensive Free Trade Area accord between Ukraine and the EU, which has been stalled by the Europeans in protest of Timoshenko’s imprisonment.

Generally speaking, the Obama Administration has mismanaged the U.S. relationship with Russia and Ukraine. During its first three years, it made a grave mistake in assessing who was in charge in Moscow betting on Dmitry Medvedev. Its failure to understand that Putin was Russia’s “national leader”— that he had never relinquished the reins of power and had no intention of letting Medvedev continue in office past March 2012—was mind-boggling.

This led to a chain of strategic miscalculations in relations with Moscow. While expecting Medvedev to run for the second term, the Administration agreed to cut U.S. strategic nuclear forces under the New START, abandoned the original program of missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, and engaged Russia in futile missile defense talks. It pursued a policy of geopolitical neglect in the former Soviet Union, and toned down criticism of the violation of political freedom in Russia.

A President Romney campaign would likely reverse these policies. His foreign policy team, which is a combination “neo-conservatives” and “realists,” has accused Russia of abandoning even a pretense of democratic values and practices. The candidate and his spokespeople have called the Kremlin policies a “geopolitical threat” to the U.S., criticized the prison terms for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, opposition leaders, and even “Pussy Riot” as assaults on democratic values, and talked openly of rampant corruption in Moscow.

Alongside the Republican convention, Institute for Contemporary Russia conducted a Russia panel discussion featuring Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the jailed YUKOS founder and the Institute president, Vladimir Kara-Murza, the “Solidarity” movement activist and journalist, and Ambassador Richard Williamson, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The speakers called for Khodorkovsky’s release and denounced the ongoing human rights crackdown.

Much can also be discerned from Romney’s speech in Warsaw last month. He praised Winston Churchill for recognizing that Russia’s national interests – not democratic values—is the key to understanding its behavior. Romney also hailed Pope John Paul II and his message, “Be not afraid”, which moved—and liberated—millions. The Polish Pope, the great champion of freedom and President Ronald Reagan’s ally, who was instrumental in bringing down the communist domination of Eastern Europe, is clearly hero of Romney’s.

It is not surprising, then, that Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader and Polish president, met with Romney but refused to meet with Barak Obama, who abolished President Bush’s Poland-centric plan for European missile defense. Romney also extensively praised Poland’s successful economic transformation from a centrally- planned economic basket case to a successful free-market economy, a transformation that enabled it to be the only European country to defy the recent recession.

Undoubtedly, the next Administration, be it Romney’s or Obama’s, will face tough challenges. The message from both campaigns is that repairing the still weak American economy will be Job One. Nevertheless, the U.S. remains the globe’s indispensable power.  As former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said at the Republican convention Wednesday night, that if America won’t shoulder its international burden, there will be chaos—or countries, such as China, with values very different than the U.S.’ may step in.

American presidential elections are won or lost on domestic issues.  But once in office, every president is confronted with challenging developments overseas—developments that threaten the safety and freedom of millions.  It is how a president responds to those foreign challenges that often determine the success or failure of a presidency. Ukraine, if it is free of oppression and corruption, can count on America's friendship.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation (

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