Whoever wins the U.S. presidency, Washington's Russia policy needs a reassessment and a rethink. The "reset" has run its course. The Obama administration's vaunted policy of engaging with Moscow did away with the irritants of the previous administration and allowed a modicum of cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan supply routes. It has failed to give America's Russia policy a strategic depth, but this was never the intention. But Mitt Romney's portrayal of Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe" and promising to be tough on Putin is not a policy either. Rhetoric has its uses on the campaign trail, but its value greatly diminishes when the challenger becomes the incumbent. The real choice for the new administration lies between keeping Russia on the periphery of the U.S. foreign policy, which means essentially taking a tactical approach, and treating Russia as an asset in America's global strategy.
Frankly, the former approach appears much more likely. As the United States struggles with the plethora of issues in the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan, and focuses more on China and Asia, Russia will be seen as a marginal or irrelevant factor. In some cases, as in Afghanistan, Moscow will continue to provide valuable logistical support; in others, such as Iran's nuclear program, it might be considered useful, but only up to a point; in still other cases, like Syria, it will be regarded as a spoiler due to its consistent opposition to the U.S. effort to topple the Assad regime. As regards China and East Asia, the United States will continue to ignore Russia, whose resources and role are believed to be negligible in that part of the world. Tellingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seminal "pivot" article in Foreign Policy did not care to mention Russia at all.
When Russia's cooperation on foreign policy is deemed to matter little, and its opposition regarded as little more than nuisance, Moscow's interests and concerns are unlikely to be taken seriously in Washington. Reaching a deal on missile defense with the Russians and selling that deal in Washington may prove too much for the new Obama administration; a Romney White House would probably not bother to reach out to the Kremlin at all, even as it goes ahead with NATO deployments in Europe. That NATO's further enlargement to the east would likely continue to stall would have more to do with the political realities in Ukraine and Georgia, however, than with any restraint in Washington.
Moreover, various constituencies in the United States might take a more proactive attitude with regard to the domestic developments in Russia. Nearly a year after the beginning of large-scale protests following the flawed parliamentary elections last December, the Russia's domestic socio-political crisis has deepened. The Russian Awakening is on the way -- but the situation is complex, and the outcome wide open. A temptation arises to assist in the process by putting pressure on those in power (e.g., by means of the Magnitsky Bill, soon to become law) while simultaneously encouraging those who sail with the winds of change.
This has already made Washington a factor in Russian domestic politics. Even as the protesters deride the notion of being on the payroll of the United States, the Kremlin has been seeking to brand the opposition as "foreign agents" and to present itself as the fulcrum of Russian patriotism and defender of the national interest. In this logic, verbal attacks on Putin from the outside world benefit him. (And Romney's remarks help a lot.) Taking the cue from the authors of the Magnitsky Bill, the Kremlin is considering ordering Russian officials to repatriate their assets. If the elites' resistance could be overcome, this move would kill two birds with one stone: make Moscow less vulnerable to outside pressure, and increase the Kremlin's control over those who serve it. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has made several steps toward reducing U.S. influence in the country -- passing new restrictions on NGOs, expanding the definition of high treason, and ending USAID and Nunn-Lugar programs in Russia.