(CNSNews.com) – Mitt Romney’s criticism of Russia following President Obama’s “open mike” moment with his Russian counterpart has drawn a harsh response in Moscow.
The Republican presidential hopeful is being labeled a neo-conservative stooge, an out-of-touch politician stuck in a Cold War mindset – even a manifestation of the “Marlboro Man.”
In a CNN interview Monday, Romney called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe,” citing its support for “the world’s worst actors,” such as Syria and Iran.
The former Massachusetts governor was reacting to Obama’s unintentionally public assurance to President Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting in South Korea that he would have “more flexibility” after his presumed November re-election to deal with a long running dispute with the Russians over missile defense plans in Europe.
“The idea that our president is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming,” Romney said.
Medvedev told reporters in Seoul that Romney was invoking “Hollywood” stereotypes. Anyone running for the presidency should “use their heads and consult their reason,” Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.
The outgoing Russian leader, who will be succeeded by Vladimir Putin in early May, also advised Romney to “check his watch – it’s 2012, not the middle of the 1970s.”
Back in Moscow, Romney’s reported comments made headlines and prompted strong reactions, with a report in the Moscow Times musing that the words constituted “perhaps the most hostile remark by a major U.S. politician since President Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech.”
If a moderate Republican called Russia enemy number one, it was hard to imagine what a conservative Republican might say, said Alexei Pushkov, head of the Duma's powerful foreign affairs committee, according to Russia Today, a pro-Kremlin television network.
“This is not surprising,” Pushkov told reporters. “Among Romney’s top foreign policy advisers we can see the same neo-conservatives who directly influenced the development of U.S. foreign policy under [President] Bush.”
Pushkov said Romney’s stance recalled that of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) four years ago, and noted that McCain had lost the presidential race to Obama. (McCain has also criticized Obama’s “flexibility” comments.)
Alexander Sokolov, a pro-Kremlin leading member of Russia’s Public Chamber – an institution created by Putin in 2005 as a government oversight body – likened Romney and other Republican presidential contenders to “the Marlboro Man,” calling them “tough guys, for which there are only ‘American interests,’ and all other countries [are] potential enemies, or at least competitors.”
Hostility towards Russia was aimed at winning votes – “most of the conservative Americans support such statements.”
Sokolov said an Obama second term would be a guarantee that the so-called “reset” in Washington-Moscow relations would progress.
‘Phased adaptive approach’
Obama’s words in Seoul related to one of the most intractable disputes between the two countries, originating a decade ago when the Bush administration proposed a ballistic missile defense (BMD) umbrella to defend it and its allies from the threat of missiles attack from hostile states, primarily Iran.
Washington reached agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to station BMD facilities in the two former Warsaw Pact countries, but the proposals ran into strong opposition from Moscow.
Despite repeated U.S. insistence that the system was designed to protect against “rogue states” and would not weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent, the Kremlin maintained that it would harm its security, and threatened retaliation.
As part of his initiative to “reset” strained relations with Russia, Obama ordered a lengthy review before announcing he was replacing the original plan with a “phased adaptive approach,” designed to protect first southeastern Europe, and eventually all of Europe, against short- and medium-range missiles. Elements would be deployed in Turkey, Poland and Romania.
Russia was invited to participate in what was now billed a NATO project, and at a Nov. 2010 summit in Portugal it tentatively agreed. Differences quickly emerged, however, and Russia continues to demand written non-aggression guarantees.
Obama’s stated intention to display “more flexibility” after November comes at a time when Republican critics believe the administration has already made too many concessions to Moscow over the issue, citing the cancelation of the Poland and Czech agreements and language in the New START treaty’s preamble linking missile defense to nuclear arms reductions.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday resolving the missile defense issue would take time, “and whether or not there can be a breakthrough sometime in the future is yet to be determined, but we certainly look at this as a long-term engagement.”
“It will continue with President-elect Putin, as it has with President Medvedev,” she told reporters during a joint appearance at the State Department with her Estonian counterpart.
“But let me hasten to say in the meantime we continue with the deployment of the phased adaptive approach to missile defense that was agreed to at the  Lisbon summit. We expect to announce further progress at the Chicago summit,” Clinton added, referring to a NATO leaders’ gathering Obama will host in May.
In a wide-ranging foreign policy article published in the Moskovskiye Novosti daily days before his election this month, Putin reiterated his opposition to the proposals.
“As I've said before, U.S. plans to create a missile defense system in Europe give rise to legitimate fears in Russia,” he wrote. “Why does that system worry us more than others? Because it affects the strategic nuclear deterrence forces that only Russia possesses in that theater, and upsets the military-political balance established over decades.”
Putin warned – not for the first time – that failure to settle the matter would cost the West Russian cooperation in other areas.
Accusing “Western partners” of brushing aside Russia’s concerns, Putin said “this approach will backfire with respect to global objectives, making it more difficult to cooperate on a positive agenda in international relations.”
Putin also warned – again – that Russia may have to take “countermeasures.”
“One would not like to see the deployment of the American system on a scale that would demand the implementation of our declared countermeasures.”
The Kremlin has threatened periodically since 2008 to deploy Iskander short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering Poland, in response to the proposed missile defense shield. Medvedev repeated the threat at a security conference in Moscow last Friday.