Andrew Weiss considers the reasons for U.S.-Russian tensions, and finds the presidential elections in both countries to be partly responsible:
A third big drag on U.S.-Russian relations comes from the so-called silly season that accompanies presidential campaigns in both countries. Of course, 2012 was always supposed to be a dead year in U.S.-Russian relations. Back-to-back presidential campaigns have overshadowed just about everything on the bilateral agenda, and practically no one in Washington or Moscow had been predicting that significant progress could be made this year on the toughest issues.
Take missile defense, for example. Putin has shown little interest in cutting deals on major arms control issues with a U.S. president who might not be around in just a few months time to implement them.
Not only does Putin have no strong incentive to take risks in pursuing new deals with Obama before the election, but he has good reason to believe that a Romney administration would halt or reverse most or all of Obama’s initiatives related to Russia. If Romney wins in November, Putin has even less incentive to cooperate with the U.S., because he will assume (correctly) that the incoming administration is going to be much more antagonistic. Arms control isn’t likely to be a top priority in a Romney White House. To the extent that he has said anything about arms control, Romney is openly hostile to new agreements and unwilling to make even the smallest concessions on missile defense.
The good news is that U.S.-Russian relations might start to recover once the election is over, but that depends on the outcome. Romney’s election would represent the confirmation of Russian hard-liners’ suspicions that the post-2008 thaw in relations was a fluke and couldn’t be sustained. Indeed, the Republican nominee seems to have crafted his Russia policy to maximize distrust and paranoia in Moscow. The 2008 and 2012 campaigns have been unusual in the post-Cold War era for the intensity of anti-Russian sentiment expressed by the Republican nominees in these cycles. If it had just been the 2008 cycle, it could have attributed to McCain’s longstanding anti-Russian attitudes and dismissed as such. The re-emergence of Russophobia as a major theme of Republican foreign policy makes that impossible.
Weiss also points to the danger that Putin will contribute to wrecking the relationship for opportunistic domestic reasons:
Still, Putin knows how to cater to the two-thirds of the Russian electorate that voted for him in March and reside primarily in Russia’s smaller cities and countryside. He may find it hard to resist the temptation to play upon their worst fears and anti-Western stereotypes. Sacrificing the past several years of dramatic improvement in the U.S.-Russian relationship may seem like a small price to pay if it breathes new life and legitimacy into his rule.
If Romney is elected, his desire to scrap good relations with Russia would make it extremely easy for Putin to do just that.