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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Sidelined in U.S. Campaign

NEW YORK -- With the U.S. economic downturn, the war in Iraq and the threat of looming conflict with Iran, it is little wonder that candidates in the heated U.S. presidential primaries spare few words for Russia.

While the leading candidates differ on how to deal with a resurgent Russia, they all take a much harder line on the country than the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Yet only two of them -- Republican hopeful John McCain and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton -- have mentioned Russia while addressing an electorate that cares more about the sinking stock market and forging a coherent policy in Iraq. And their remarks have not always been strong on nuance.

"I looked into Putin's eyes and I saw three letters -- a K, a G and a B," McCain said in a December interview with The Boston Herald. Upon first meeting Putin, Bush said he stared into the Russian leader's eyes and "got a sense of his soul."

Addressing voters in Iowa in February 2007, McCain referred to Putin as "President Putin of Germany."

"I was in a conference in Germany over the weekend, and President Putin of Germany gave one of the old Cold War-style speeches," McCain said in the speech, a video of which is posted on YouTube.

The Arizona senator has long been one of the most critical voices on Russia, repeatedly calling for the country's ouster from the Group of Eight over human rights concerns.

McCain renewed that call in a recent opinion piece in The Financial Times, writing: "[W]e in the West must pursue cooperation with Moscow where we can. But too many believe that we can define an agenda of cooperation that is divorced from the nature of the Russian regime and its actions against its own citizens."

McCain, like his three main Republican competitors, supports Bush's plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.

"If I'm in the Kremlin, he's not my No. 1 candidate," Andrew Kuchins, head of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of McCain.

McCain is joined in the Republican race by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Romney, whose foreign policy team is being led by longtime diplomat Mitchell Reiss, an expert on nuclear issues and North Korea, also supports plans for missile defense and is critical of events inside Russia. But he has urged greater U.S.-Russian cooperation, particularly on nuclear issues.

In a January article in Foreign Affairs, Huckabee said he was pessimistic on Russia's role in resolving the standoff with Iran and described Putin as "a staunch nationalist in a country with no democratic tradition."

"He will do everything he can to reassert Russia's power -- militarily, economically, diplomatically," Huckabee wrote.

None of the candidates have spoken out on Russia's March 2 presidential election, in which Putin's preferred successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to win in a landslide.

Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, said she doubted McCain would follow through on plans to isolate Russia as harshly as he has claimed.

"Usually campaign rhetoric is much stronger than policies that are enacted when they actually become president," Stent said.

Clinton's public remarks on Russia have been comparably harsh, if rhetorical, saying Putin "doesn't have a soul" because he was a KGB agent.

Clinton further criticized Putin in a December article in Foreign Affairs, saying he "suppressed many of the freedoms won after the fall of communism, created a new class of oligarchs, and interfered deeply in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics."

At the same time, she wrote, "we need to engage Russia selectively on issues of high national importance," such as Iran, nuclear weapons and Kosovo.

"There's considerable consensus about the new elements in the [U.S.-Russian] relationship -- the increased points of friction, the unsettling anti-Americanism of political rhetoric, the authoritarian drift of domestic politics," said Stephen Sestanovich, chief Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and Clinton's top advisor on Russia.

"Alongside these new problems is continuing interest in cooperation -- and no one is quite sure how to put the pieces of the strategy together," Sestanovich said.

A Clinton presidency could bode ill for U.S.-Russian relations over Kosovo however. Clinton is believed to have tapped Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and staunch supporter of Kosovo's independence following a long stint as envoy to the Balkans, as her potential secretary of state.

Clinton's main competitor, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, holds a similar stance on Russia, while pushing harder in policy papers for greater cooperation on reducing nuclear stockpiles and boosting democracy inside the country. Michael McFaul, a Russia expert and political science professor at Stanford, is leading Obama's Russia team.

Candidates' policies on Russia could become even clearer when the U.S. Congress begins hearings on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization later this year, the Kuchins said this year.

Both Kuchins and McFaul joined a chorus of U.S. analysts bemoaning the lack of public discussion on Russia.

"The relationship is at the worst it's been in two decades," McFaul said. "Time and attention have faded gradually. Russia's been downgraded substantially during the Bush years."

In the general election -- especially if the Republican candidate is McCain -- there will be a much more substantial debate over foreign policy, McFaul said.

"Everyone hopes that the political transition in both Russia and the U.S. can be an opportunity to turn the page and to put relations on a more positive footing," Sestanovich said. "But there's no single gimmick that's going to make this happen."

The candidates are still due to battle it out in Florida ahead of "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when 20 states will hold their primaries. Obama won Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, while Clinton finished second.

The Republicans nominate their presidential candidate at a national convention in September, while the Democratic candidate will be determined in late August.

"There are certain parts of the country that care more -- Ohio, Illinois, Michigan -- where there are lots of ethnic Ukrainians and Poles, and these are traditionally swing voters," McFaul said. "For a small percentage of people, a policy on Russia is going to matter."