Romney’s self-fulfilling Russia prophecy
The degradation of the Russian-US relations is the byproduct of the American foreign policy
A decade ago, then-Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was lambasted by the media for calling Russia “America’s number one geopolitical foe.” Today, he is being lauded for being a visionary. Romney’s self-fulfilling prophecy says more about bad US policy than Russian malfeasance.
It was the hot mic moment heard around the world. On March 26, 2012, as reporters were being led into a photo opportunity involving President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the eve of a global nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, their microphones picked up an exchange between the two leaders.
Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.”
Medvedev: “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…”
Obama: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
The context of the conversation—delicate negotiations between the US and Russia regarding ballistic missile defense systems in Europe—was irrelevant to what happened next.
That night, while being interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2012 US Presidential race, Mitt Romney, chided the Democratic incumbent for his comments. “Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage,” Romney said. “And for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia, is very, very troubling, very alarming.” Calling Russia America’s number one geopolitical foe, Romney declared, “they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that [President Barack Obama] has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling, indeed.”
The issue of Obama’s hot mic moment came up again, during a televised debate on October 22, 2012. Obama, aware of the potential negative political exposure his hot mic incident could create, came loaded with a zinger. “A few months ago,” he told Romney, “when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia…and the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
All Romney could do was repeat his assessment of Russia being America’s number one geopolitical foe, before declaring: “I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, ‘I’ll give you more flexibility after the election.’”
Obama’s mic-drop moment was devastating for Romney, who lost the election in a landslide.
Years later, some of Romney’s biggest critics appear to have changed their minds about his “Cold War” moment. “Look, I’m willing to say that in 2012 when we all scoffed at Mitt for saying that, gee, Russia was our No. 1 geopolitical foe, think we were a little off there,” former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau noted in 2017.
In the aftermath of Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine, Mitt Romney’s 2012 pronouncements have been, in the eyes of many political observers in America, vindicated.
Romney certainly believes so, commenting on CNN’s State of the Union last Sunday that “a geopolitical foe they obviously were and continue to be, because Russia continues to fight us in every venue they have. They support the world’s worst actors.”
Romney expressed concern over a trend by three former presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—who sought to reset relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “John McCain was right,” Romney said. “He said he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw the KGB. And that’s what we’re seeing: a small, evil, feral-eyed man who is trying to shape the world in the image where once again Russia would be an empire. And that’s not going to happen.”
To the geopolitically uninitiated, Romney’s 2012 remarks, when viewed through the lens of the present, certainly seem prescient. What is missing, however, is the context of history over time, the factual connectivity between events circa 2012, and the moment. When Obama and Medvedev had their hot mic incident, the US and Russia were still in their “reset” phase of the Obama first term, where the US hoped against hope that they would be able to weaken Putin’s hold on power by promoting the political fortunes of Medvedev.
This gambit failed, not because of any malfeasance on the part of Russia, but the lack of integrity in the Obama administration when it came to fulfilling promises made to Medvedev concerning arms control and the NATO intervention in Libya. While the US notion that Medvedev could somehow supplant Putin as the leading political figure in Russia was always an American pipe dream (the brain child of none other than Michael McFaul, Obama’s foremost Russian expert in the national security council who went on to become Obama’s Ambassador in Moscow), the notion that improving US-Russian relations through meaningful diplomatic engagement was not far-fetched. Indeed, had the Obama administration delivered on missile defense, and limited the intervention in Libya to purely humanitarian pursuits, there was a good chance that relations between the US and Russia during Putin’s second incarnation as Russia’s President could have been constructive.
The duplicity and deceit of the Obama administration, when combined with the flagrant Russophobia that defined the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, so soured relations that even before Joe Biden took office in early 2021, the level of US-Russian discourse had sunk to Cold War-era levels. The Trump administration had inherited a dark mess from its predecessor when it came to US-Russian relations, colored not only by the false allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to steal the 2016 US Presidential election, but a proxy conflict in Ukraine which had emerged in the aftermath of the so-called Maidan Revolution. The 2014 US-backed insurrection overthrew the duly elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, replacing him with ultra-nationalists whose anti-Russian stance led to the reabsorption of Crimea by the Russian government and the outbreak of fighting between the new Ukrainian government and pro-Russia separatists in the Donbass region.
The US had become so entangled in the Ukrainian web that Trump was impeached based upon a phone call he made in the summer of 2019 to newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During that call, he allegedly held US military aid hostage to a promise by Zelensky to investigate the relationship between Joe Biden’s son and a Ukrainian energy holding company, Burisma. The way the impeachment manager, Representative Adam Schiff, described the importance of this aid was telling when it came to the state of US-Russian relations.
“This military aid, which has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support, was designed to help Ukraine defend itself from the Kremlin’s aggression. More than 15,000 Ukrainians have died fighting Russian forces and their proxies, and the military aid was for such essentials as sniper rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, radar, night vision goggles and other vital support for the war effort,” Schiff said in his opening address to the US Senate presiding over the impeachment trial of Trump, on January 22, 2020.
He continued: “Most critically, the military aid we provide Ukraine helps to protect and advance American national security interests in the region and beyond. America has an abiding interest in stemming Russian expansionism and resisting any nation’s efforts to remake the map of Europe by dint of military force, even as we have tens of thousands of troops stationed there. Moreover, as one witness put it during our impeachment inquiry: ‘The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that they can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here.’”
Seen in this light, there was nothing prescient about Mitt Romney’s 2012 categorization of US-Russian relations. Far from representing a maintenance of a decade-long status quo linked to the pernicious personality of a single Russian president, the degradation of relations between Russia and the US from 2012 to the present was the byproduct of an American foreign policy which was inherently anti-Russian in its construct. Romney’s 2012 pronouncements represent little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, the consequence of a relationship marked by bad faith on the part of the United States.