How playing the Russia card can be an effective tactic for US politicians

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How playing the Russia card can be an effective tactic for US politicians
Published 15-02-2016, 08:12

Olga Poroshina

Olga Poroshina is an independent analyst based in New York. She is a specialist on U.S. domestic politics and Russian and U.S. foreign policies. She graduated with both a BA and MA in International Relations from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University).

Criticism of Russia within the U.S. can help to achieve a number of useful goals – whether it’s the pursuit of political power, increased military budgets or new business deals.

The field of space exploration has been one of the rare examples of U.S.-Russia cooperation that has remained intact despite the falling out between the two nations over the past two years. This fact could not pass unnoticed by a group of U.S. congressmen who, it seems, are ready to go to great lengths to "ensure (the U.S. ends its) dependence on Russian rocket engines and (stops) subsidizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his gang of corrupt cronies.”

Unfortunately, such rhetoric has become all too common among Washington hawks flocking around their leader, Sen. John McCain (R-Az). While some (mostly the generation of Cold War warriors) truly believe in a revanchist Russia seeking to undermine the positions of the U.S., others skillfully play the Russia card to achieve their individual political goals.

The polls show that the U.S. general public still views Russia as "a major threat to the well-being of the United States,” even if the numbers appear to be trending down. While in August 2014, 53 percent of Americans were concerned with Moscow’s behavior, in December 2015 this percentage dropped to 42 percent, landing Russia in seventh place behind such issues as global climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and China’s emergence.

At the same time, public attitude in the U.S. towards Russia remains largely unfavorable (67 percent vs. 22 percent). These two facts make criticizing Russia an easy instrument for populist rhetoric: It resonates with the sentiments of common Americans, who, nonetheless, do not care about it enough to demand tangible actions.

U.S. politics and the demonization of Russia

One of the areas where the demonization of Russia comes in handy is the fight for political power. The approaching elections have exacerbated the critique of the current Administration coming from U.S. presidential hopefuls. The surge of Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East, coupled with terrorist attacks around the world (but most notably in Paris and San Bernardino, CA) and the influx of refugees, precipitated the rise of national security in the presidential debates and required candidates to show their toughness on foreign policy.

Hence, U.S. President Barack Obama’s handling of Ukraine crisis was quickly labeled as weak. Sanctions were not severe enough, support to Ukraine was not lethal enough, and any contact with Russian authorities was a sign of appeasement. Democratic candidates followed suit. For example, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who once pressed the "overload” button, tried to balance between claiming a share of Obama’s successes (the Iran deal and restoration of relations with Cuba) while criticizing him for softness on terrorism and Russia.

Even Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, a former socialist who thinks that the money spent on military operations should be used for education and healthcare, calls for freezing Russian government assets all over the world and claims that he is not afraid to use force when absolutely necessary.

It is interesting that the use of the Russia card in the competition for toughness can be used both ways. Republican candidate and billionair Donald Trump creatively twisted the narrative and showed that it is not necessary to hate Russia in order to look strong. Rather, in his mind, only a strong leader who is respected by the Kremlin can handle the Russian challenge. Other candidates swiftly picked up this trend and this new logic was applied to the Russian campaign in Syria.

Instead of urging a strong response to Moscow’s actions, they focused on criticizing Obama’s lack of decisiveness and inaction, which allowed America’s foes to promote their interests unchallenged. Moreover, some of them (for instance, the Republican Party's Ted Cruz and Democrats' Clinton) went a step further and slammed Obama for missing the opportunity to cooperate with Russia in the fight against ISIS.

U.S. defense spending and criticism of the Kremlin

Another sphere of Washington politics where criticism of Russia's political elites is successfully exploited is defense spending. Along with the Pentagon’s general desire to avoid completely the possibility of sequestration, there is a more subtle aspect that deals with the distribution of military resources between different regions.

While the desire to avoid budget cuts explains the harsh words from the U.S. military chiefs claiming that Russia is back as a number one threat, the latter became evident when in October (amid heated debates on the defense budget) Gen. Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, for the first time in half year arrived to Washington to, in his own words, ask for allocation of more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to Europe and "advocate for an increased need to address the Russian Navy as it is growing in the Black Sea fleet.” To underscore the urgency to reverse the trend of the U.S.’s gradual withdrawal from Europe, he embraced the argument that Russia is not "that partner that we thought we had for the last two decades.”

While the examples mentioned above deal with such elevated issues as national security and global power competition, the Russian threat proves to be just as relevant in achieving more practical commercial and business goals.

McCain and the Russian rocket engines

A vivid example is the case of the Russian rocket engines. This issue goes back to March 2014, when Congress, responding to Moscow’s move in Crimea, leveled a slew of economic sanctions against Russia including a ban on the import of rocket engines (RD-180) for national security-related launches. At the time, the sole launch services provider to the government was the United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose monopoly did not allow other upstart companies on the market any chance for competition. Conveniently, ULA fully relies on the RD-180 in order to launch its Atlas V rockets – a fact that was quickly exploited by its most prominent competitor SpaceX.

On March 5, 2014 (when sanctions were not even on the horizon) the CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk pitched to the Senate Committee on Appropriations the following idea: "In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing ‘assured access to space’ for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.  Given this development, it would seem prudent to reconsider whether the 36 core uncompetitive, sole source award to ULA is truly in the best interests of the people of the United States.”

The argument hit the nail on the head and found a responsive audience in the person of Sen. John McCain, who began a two-year battle against ULA’s monopoly under the pretext of the Russian threat. When his attempts to fully ban Russian engines – and thus put ULA out of business – failed (the final text did not include commercial launches and exempted the engines already purchased) he tried to limit the amount of future purchases. This clause, while giving some flexibility, pushed the Pentagon to seek other launch service providers who would develop a truly American engine.

However, pretty quickly it was discovered that a new engine would require an entirely new rocket, and the first all-American launch could happen no sooner than 2022 at very best. The battle culminated in December 2015 when the omnibus two-year spending bill was overnight amended to allow a new order of 20 Russian rocket engines. A furious McCain joined by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from California (which, by the way, is the home state of SpaceX) refused to accept the defeat and promised to continue the fight in 2016.

While the notion that "the Americans hate Russia” is far from the truth, this tendency to appeal to not quite forgotten fears of the Cold War threatens to become a vicious circle when criticism of Russia is used to achieve personal gains, which, in turn, propels further anti-Russian sentiments.

Unfortunately, as long as the benefits from cultivating Russophobia in America (just as well as in Russia) outweigh the fruits of U.S.-Russia cooperation, there is hardly any room left for those forces that seek to change such attitudes. On the bright side, though, such forces do exist and they continue to "create broad public awareness of the dangers” of the new Cold War.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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