Do we all owe Mitt Romney an apology? To cut to the chase: No, we do not. But a lot of people think we do, so it’s worth delving deep into the question. What’s at stake isn’t merely the reputation of a senator but our understanding of the nature and aims of modern Russia.
Back during his presidential campaign in March of 2012, Romney, who would become that year’s Republican candidate, said in a CNN interview, “Russia is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” President Barack Obama, in one of their debates, poked merciless fun at Romney for his comment. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama chortled, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Now, as Russia invades Ukraine with unrelenting savagery, many commentators—at CNN, Politico, the Atlantic, and elsewhere—say that Romney was right. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, Romney said of his critics from 10 years ago, “It’s hard for me to believe that they didn’t realize that I was right at the time, because it was so obvious.”
But Romney wasn’t right at all. In fact, Obama’s policy to “reset” relations with Russia—signed in March 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—was a resounding success, at least for a few years. Some results:
• In July 2009, Russia’s president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a release allowing U.S. planes to fly troops and military supplies through Russian airspace on their way to Afghanistan. More than 12,000 flights, including the transport of more than 35,000 troops and one-third of the fuel used by U.S. military vehicles, went through this route.
• In March 2010, Obama and Medvedev signed the New START, a treaty lowering the number of each side’s nuclear weapons and putting in place on-site inspection procedures that were tighter than those of any previous accord.
• In September 2010, Medvedev banned the sale of advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Russia had signed a deal to sell Iran five batteries of these missiles, at a cost of $800 million. Medvedev even refunded the $166 million that Iran had paid as an advance deposit. This was a hugely important decision. Iran was building up its nuclear program. If the U.S. or Israel had decided to bomb the nuclear facilities, those S-300 missiles could have shot down the attacking airplanes. The cancellation drove home Iran’s vulnerability and convinced Tehran’s leaders to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.
• Also in 2010, Russia (and China) approved a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran—another step that eventually brought Tehran to the negotiating table.
• Russia was also heavily involved in formulating, and voting in favor of, U.N. sanctions against North Korea for violating a ban on ballistic missile testing.
During this time, Medvedev also joined the U.S. and other countries in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. He also participated in efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons, working to dispose of 76 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from eight countries.
In his 2012 CNN interview, Romney explained his characterization of Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” by saying, “They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors”—and referred specifically to Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria. In his recent Atlantic interview, he said, “They were opposing us at the U.N. whenever a critical measure came forward.” Both statements were simply untrue.
The fact is, quite apart from partisan bickering or revisionist history about the wisdom of Romney, the U.S. and Russia shared vital interests on a number of issues—and acted together to advance those interests, at least for a while. Medvedev and other Kremlin officials were also genuinely keen to bring Russia into the global economy—to diversify its economy beyond commodities like oil and gas, build up its tech sector, and expand its trade—which motivated them to build better relations with America and Europe.
Then things changed. Most importantly, Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president in May 2012 (two months after Romney’s CNN interview). He’d been president before, from 2000 to 2008, then stepped aside to become prime minister during Medvedev’s term. (Putin was still in charge, but he allowed Medvedev a lot of leeway.) Putin was spurred to take back full control because, from his point of view, Medvedev was meshing with the West too much.
The decisive act came when Medvedev abstained on a U.N. Security Council vote to authorize a no-fly resolution over Libya. Putin would have vetoed the measure. Medvedev had assurances from his Western friends that they would not overthrow Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, one of Russia’s few stalwart allies.
When Gadhafi was ousted and then killed by Western-backed rebels, that was too much for Putin. He decided to run for president again; Medvedev stepped aside to become prime minister, which from that point devolved into a ceremonial role. (He is now deputy of Putin’s security council and has defended the invasion of Ukraine with startling venom and vigor.)
The decline in U.S.-Russian relations began soon after Putin’s return. A former KGB officer who viewed the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, Putin had long seethed with resentment toward the U.S. for its Cold War victory and for its expansion of NATO in the wake of that triumph. When he returned to full power, Russia was still too weak for him to do anything about these grudges. But as the economy improved thanks to higher oil prices, and as he lavished more of the budget on new weapons for his military, Putin decided to act—to stake his political legacy on the most audacious, atrocious gamble that Europe had seen in decades.
The aggression against Ukraine is Putin’s doing. It is not a logical extension of Russian actions or policies in the spring of 2012.
True, even during those halcyon few years when Medvedev was eager to strike deals with the West, Russia and the U.S. had their differences. Russia’s 2008 invasion of the former republic of Georgia, to support the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, still gnawed (as Obama’s White House acknowledged in a fact sheet on the benefits of his “reset” policy). Russia’s alliances with Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela were in fact nuisances.
But Russia was barely a geopolitical antagonist, much less America’s No. 1 foe. To borrow from the title of his old campaign book, Mitt Romney deserves no apology.