Nikolas Gvosdev makes a good case for grounding the U.S.-Russian relationship on shared interests rather than the personal ties between our respective presidents. He acknowledges the real differences that separate the two governments, but at one point he may be overstating the differences:
The first step is to recognize that there is no shared community of values between the two states. This starts with how each country handles its own domestic political affairs and extends to international matters. While much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment subscribes to the belief that U.S. national security is enhanced by the spread of democracy around the world, their Russian counterparts espouse no such faith. Russia’s partners can be democracies, like Germany or India, or nondemocratic regimes, like China or Syria. What matters to Moscow is the regime’s orientation, not its composition.
The difference Gvosdev describes is certainly real. As long as a government is not overtly hostile to Russia, Russia is indifferent to its regime type. Kyrgyzstan is the most recent and best example of Russian support for an elected government that tilts towards Moscow rather than a less reliable authoritarian ruler. Officially, the U.S. welcomes the change in government in Kyrgyzstan even though it represented a setback for U.S. influence there, but the change in government was not something that the U.S. sought or facilitated. In practice, a regime’s orientation rather than its composition is what really matters to the U.S. no less than Russia. The U.S. officially favors promoting democracy and encourages its authoritarian clients to “reform” (while usually leaving the nature and extent of that reform to the clients to define), but the U.S. is hardly averse to cooperating with, supporting, and arming authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. and Russia wouldn’t be so sharply at odds over the conflict in Syria if Syria’s government had been aligned with the U.S. before the uprising started, and if Syria had been a U.S. client before now it is much less likely that there would be any serious consideration given to supporting or arming opposition forces. What distinguishes U.S. and Russian dealings with authoritarian regimes is that the U.S. might sometimes support the deposition of a client ruler or the overthrow of a regime that has been reconciled with the West. Russia generally doesn’t have much desire to promote regime change anywhere, except perhaps in special cases where the local government is perceived as unacceptably anti-Russian.
Gvosdev does on to argue that the U.S.-Russian relationship shouldn’t be dependent on the presidential relationship:
For the past 20 years, the centerpiece of U.S.-Russia relations has been the president-to-president relationship, with success or failure being judged by the quality of the ties between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, or Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev (and now Putin again). Perhaps it is time to let the CEOs take center stage instead. U.S.-Russia trade stands at a paltry $35 billion right now, woefully undeveloped, and the important societal linkages that bind the U.S. to its other partners — and even to China — are stunted when it comes to Russia. Putin and Obama don’t need to go out for burgers together, but if they can keep potential crises tapped down for the next few years, a stronger Russia-U.S. commercial relationship might do for the bilateral relationship what two decades of presidential diplomacy has not: find a way to bridge the values gap and to create a new and durable community of interest between the two countries.
It is the lack of these ties between the U.S. and Russia that makes it relatively easy and risk-free for Romney to rail against Russia and current Russia policy. Romney isn’t in danger of alienating any significant constituency with his anti-Russian rhetoric, and presumably he believes that there is limited downside in promising to return U.S.-Russian relations to their 2008 low point. U.S.-Russian relations definitely need to be grounded in something other than the quality of the presidential relationship, because a Romney-Putin relationship would most likely be abysmal.