The aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war presents the next U.S. president with an early test of American resolve to continue NATO’s eastward expansion, a bipartisan policy that dates back to the Clinton administration.
Both Republican candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama back NATO membership for Georgia, as well as for Ukraine - support that strengthened with the Russian invasion of Georgia in August. Georgia’s bid to join NATO is expected to be addressed during meetings of NATO foreign and defense ministers later this year.
On the other big issue between Moscow and Washington - nuclear proliferation - both candidates call for continued negotiations to trim each nation’s arsenal and for cooperation on efforts to prevent terrorists and rogue states, such as Iran, from obtaining nuclear weapons.
When asked about Russia during the first presidential debate, Mr. Obama said he and Mr. McCain “agree for the most part on these issues.”
Russian analysts say they are not able to discern how the two men diverge on what promises to be one of the biggest foreign-policy conundrums of the next four years.
“It is impossible to glean enough information from the candidates’ speeches to determine what their respective policies toward Russia would be as president,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, wrote in the Moscow Times earlier this month.
Mr. Lukyanov called the two senators’ positions “practically identical and lacking in substance.”
However, supporters of Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain point out differences between them.
Obama supporter Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, said that Mr. Obama’s approach is “much more nuanced,” while Mr. McCain’s is “isolating” and contains “much more Cold War language.”
Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s top foreign-policy adviser, said the Republican candidate “has warned about the dangers posed by Russia’s domestic and foreign policies for many years.”
Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain “has traveled to Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia and many other countries that border Russia many times and he understands the security concerns of their leaders,” Mr. Scheunemann said.
Russia has taken advantage of surging oil prices to rebuild its economy and its military from a state of collapse after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The effort, led by Vladimir Putin, first as president and now as prime minister, has been accompanied by a rollback of democratic reforms and an increasing willingness to publicly challenge the U.S. position as the world’s only superpower, analysts say.
With the world focused on the Olympics in Beijing this summer, Georgia launched a drive to regain control of the Russian-backed rebel province of South Ossetia, using weapons it acquired in anticipation of eventual NATO membership.
Russia responded with a full-scale counterattack, followed by a drive deep into Georgian territory. Though Russian troops eventually withdrew from Georgia proper, the five-day war left Russian troops in control of both South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia.
When the conflict erupted, Mr. Obama initially urged both sides to show restraint. Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Obama’s statement and emphasized his own personal relationship with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. Mr. Obama soon toughened his rhetoric on Russia.
“Obama changed his tone because of the facts on the ground inside Georgia,” said Michael McFaul, Mr. Obama’s top Russia adviser. “It was not clear to us, when that first statement came out, that Russia was going to carry out a full-scale invasion.”
Unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama recognized “at the time that Georgia had also used violence,” which showed a better understanding of the situation, Mr. McFaul said.
The Democratic nominee has a “sophisticated strategy for dealing with Russia,” with “granularity and strategic thinking” that Mr. McCain’s position lacks, Mr. McFaul said.
In his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Mr. McCain said: “We can’t turn a blind eye to aggression and international lawlessness that threatens the peace and stability of the world and the security of the American people.”
Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a McCain supporter, said Mr. Obama is trying to “appease the Kremlin” by opposing a missile-defense shield in Central Europe.
The Bush administration says the system, with missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, is intended to counter a nuclear strike from Iran. Russia vehemently opposes the defense and says it is designing new missiles to overwhelm the system.
Mr. Obama is skeptical of the program. His campaign has said he does not want to rely on an “unproven system.”
Both candidates have criticized Moscow’s authoritarian government, but Mr. McCain has advocated Russia’s expulsion from the Group of Eight economic leaders. In July, Mr. Obama said that would be a “mistake,” but he has not made a clear pronouncement on the issue recently.
“Russia has now become a nation fueled by petrodollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government,” Mr. McCain said at the candidates’ first debate. However, he wants to “work with Russia to build confidence in our missile-defense program.”
A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading Washington think tank, described both candidates’ positions as “evolving.”
“Neither presidential candidate has articulated a comprehensive strategic vision for dealing with Russia,” the CSIS report said.
While observing the “convergence in the two candidates’ position on Russia in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war,” the CSIS report said that “subtle, but important differences” remain.
“Given the nature of presidential electoral campaigns, it may be too much to expect either candidate to articulate a clear, comprehensive strategic vision for the Russia policy they will adopt if elected,” the report said.