Election brings whiplash on Russia

Election brings whiplash on Russia
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Four years ago, Democrats mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the United States. 

Now those same Democrats are hammering Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE for arguing America should “get along” with Russia.


It’s a dramatic role reversal, grounded partly in the shift that has occurred in U.S.-Russian relations since Obama’s reelection.

“I think the change in rhetoric is based on the reality that Russian policy has changed,” said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former ambassador to Ukraine. 

When Romney sounded the alarmed about Russia in 2012, President Obama turned it into a punch line, suggesting the former Massachusetts governor was stuck in the past.

“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said during his third debate with Romney.

The president wasn’t alone in accusing Romney of overstating the threat from Russia. Six months earlier, The New York Times editorial board said Romney’s comments “display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.”

At the time, Obama’s State Department was claiming several years of diplomatic successes in Russia.

Three years previous, Obama’s then-secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonQueer Marine veteran launches House bid after incumbent California Rep. Susan Davis announces retirement Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Former immigration judge fined, temporarily banned from federal service for promoting Clinton policies MORE had announced a so-called “reset” with Russia — an attempt by the U.S. to improve relations damaged by the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

Then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was providing a crucial corridor for U.S. forces and supplies heading to Afghanistan, and the two countries were united on an ambitious arms control pact and new Iran sanctions.

Then, in spring of 2012, Putin won his third term as president amid widespread allegations of election fraud.

Under Putin, the U.S.-Russia relationship quickly soured.

During his third term, Pifer said, Putin “took a significantly more hostile stance against the United States.”

In his first two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, Putin enjoyed a growing economy, bolstered by rising oil prices.

But when he returned to the presidency, Pifer says, he adopted a much more nationalistic approach to garnering domestic support.

Attempts by the U.S. to broker a political solution with Russia to the Syrian civil war effectively failed, leading to a standstill that left Syrian President Bashar al Assad in power.

Relations with the U.S. became so strained that in August of 2013, the White House canceled a symbolic one-on-one meeting between Obama and Putin, after the administration determined that “there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda” to hold the summit.

Then, in March of 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and stoked a civil war in Ukraine, raising questions about whether Putin might try to extend Russia’s reach into the Baltic States.

“That was the point that I think you begin to see the public rhetoric change, particularly from the White House,” Pifer said. “It wasn’t a surprise that Russia would put pressure on Ukraine, but I think people were surprised by the fact that they used military force.” 

By early 2016, the Pentagon had placed Russia at the top of its list of national security threats — making Romney look prescient.

Both Republicans and Democrats denounced Putin’s action in Ukraine and have warned that the Russian president is growing more aggressive.

The hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), revealed in July and believed by many to be an attempt by the Russian government to interfere in the U.S. election, has led to cries for retaliation from both sides of the aisle.

The outlier on Russia, oddly, is a Republican voice — Donald Trump. Instead of issuing warnings, he has repeatedly praised Putin as “a strong leader” that the U.S. should work with to defeat terrorists.

His campaign has criticized Clinton’s reset as “a massive diplomatic failure” and accused the Democratic candidate of getting “rolled” by Putin. Trump himself has said he will improve relations between Moscow and Washington.

Democrats have sought to paint Trump as too friendly with Russia, dubbing him the “pro-Kremlin” candidate.

Political strategists are mystified by Trump’s approach, noting that Republican voters are hardly fans of Putin.

When Romney made his claim, “it was outside of the mainstream, or an overstatement,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiack. “Now, it would be easier for Romney to say that. 

“So it’s even more striking that our nominee is not only not saying what Romney was saying four years ago when he was ahead of the curve — but he’s actually gone in the other direction.”

Trump’s message that Putin is a “strong leader,” however, appears to resonating with his supporters.

A recent YouGov/Economist poll showed that Putin’s favorability rating amongst Republican voters, while still quite negative, has improved drastically since 2014 — from a net -66 to -27.

The shift appears to have occurred almost entirely among Trump supporters.

Trump primary voters gave Putin a net favorability of -23, while those who supported another candidate gave him a worse net rating of -61.