Russia Direct sat down with Andrei Korobkov, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, to discuss the odds of improving U.S.-Russia relations after the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.

If elected as the next U.S. Presisdent, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, is likely to be much tougher than her predecessor Barack Obama. Photo: White House Photo / Pete Souza

Even though it is too early for many to discuss the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and its ultimate impact on America’s foreign policy toward Russia, political science experts are preoccupied by these questions, possibly, because there is still a hope that the countries will finally find common ground.

This was the starting point of the interview Russia Direct conducted with Andrei Korobkov, a professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University. He sheds light on the question of what the end of Barack Obama’s presidency in the U.S. will mean for Russia and why media narratives about Russian President Vladimir Putin are misleading and over-simplified.      

RD: Recently, the Kremlin’s spokesperson told NBC that he hopes that after the next American president is elected, there might be a new reset between Russia and the U.S. What is your assessment of this?

Andrei Korobkov: The U.S. is now facing a very difficult period with the start of the 2016 presidential campaign. Most Republicans are likely to compete from the point of view of their intransigent positions toward Russia, no matter what the real consequences will be. The only exception is Rand Paul, who suggests an isolation policy and is reluctant to be involved in any foreign policy gambles, including Ukraine. Hillary Clinton is tougher on Russia and dislikes President Vladimir Putin, so we should expect anti-Russian rhetoric to be fueled during the upcoming pre-election campaigns.

So, we cannot rely on a new reset now. However, there are shifts, they are paradoxical and interesting. There has been the trend of decreasing interest in Russia for the last 20 years, with the closures of Russian language programs, de-funding of research in Russia Studies [Title VIII program – Editor’s note], and the resignation of officials from intelligence agencies and U.S. State Department.

But recently, the Congress decided to resume the Title VIII program, which finances research in the field of Russia and post-Soviet Studies. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. attitude toward Russia will be friendly, but, at least, there will be more interest and more organizations that deal with this region.           

RD: In this context, many admit that Obama is more flexible toward Russia and, in reality, more convenient to work with for the Kremlin.

A.K.: Yes, yet we should keep in mind that he is also a tough and very realistic politician, who – despite all stereotypes and the perception of him as a person who came out of the left wing civil rights movement – he is conducting a cynical policy when it comes to many issues and looking at them from the point of view of the balance of power.

However, as a pragmatist, Obama is much more beneficial for Russia than any other presidential candidate of the current campaign. So, after the 2016 presidential campaign, changes are highly likely to be negative of any new change in thinking about Russia.

RD: Maybe, Obama seeks to leave a good foreign policy legacy after his presidential tenure in order not to be remembered as the president of a new Cold War, right?

A.K.: Yes, he radically changed the U.S. policy to Cuba. In another radical move, he tries to reassess America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly, U.S. relations with Iran, Israel and even the major Arab partners, including Saudi Arabia.

The signal which he is sending indicates that there are no certain guarantees for his partners. In addition, Obama didn’t show any initiatives during the “color revolutions” in the Middle East. In fact, Europeans pushed him in Libya. He resisted the direct use of force in Syria, because he does understand from the realistic standpoint that anybody who will come after Assad is highly likely to be much worse. In this case, it might turn out that nobody comes after Assad and Syria will become a failed state.  

President Barack Obama waits backstage prior to an interview for "The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert" at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8, 2014. Photo: White House / Pete Souza.

RD: Does Obama do his utmost to prevent the delivery of lethal arms to Ukraine? Or is he no game-changer, with a greater role for Republicans in the U.S. Congress now?

A.K.: The final decision will be taken by executive power, even though there are concessions to such Republicans as Senator John McCain, who is actually not taken very seriously even by his colleagues. After all, he has proposed to bomb more than a dozen countries in recent years to bring order and peace there.

The Obama administration is not eager to supply Ukraine with weapons, with Germany and other European countries exerting pressure on Washington, because they are really afraid of American weapons being sent to Ukraine. That’s why a lot of buzz around it has so far been political rhetoric.

RD: Given the Kremlin’s role in provoking the Ukrainian crisis and worsening U.S.-Russia relations, how do ordinary Americans see Russian President Vladimir Putin now?

A.K.: Regardless of stereotypes, Putin’s popularity has received a great deal of boost in the U.S. recently. Oddly enough, his popularity has seen an increase both among the right (who hate Obama and perceive Putin as anti-Obama, a strong and aggressive leader, the symbol of power) and the left (who respond with pleasure to the fact that Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity and, in this context, point a finger to U.S. policy in Iraq as a rebuke). And it’s pretty unusual. Even during the Cold War period we haven’t seen such a trend, when a leader of the other country is becoming popular, even though his policy contradicts American values.    

RD: But doesn’t this contradict the fact that Putin’s image, created by the U.S. media, is rather negative? How can he be popular when the American media criticizes him?

A.K.: Yes, it is true. It looks a bit controversial. Since the time of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, there hasn’t been such a personalized campaign against Soviet or Russian leaders like the campaign against Putin. But, ironically, it frequently backfires, because, again, the media created a halo of power, which many Americans respect, just like Russians. Even now Ronald Reagan [who is associated with power among ordinary Americans] remains one of the most popular U.S. presidents.   

RD: You teach American students. How do they perceive Russia and Putin, particularly?

A.K.: The trend is a bit ironic, because among my students are many military officers who are sent by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps to get Master’s degrees. And Putin is very popular among some of them, because they just perceive him as a strong leader. Such a trend is also common in the conservative South, where I am teaching.

RD: Ok, you say that Putin is popular among conservatives and the military, yet there are a lot of Americans don’t seem to like Putin. In 2014, 63 percent of Americans saw Putin in an unfavorable way, with only 19 percent viewing him favorably. And this trend doesn’t change today. Some U.S. experts even warn against the rise of a new McCarthyism in the U.S. amidst increasing anti-Russian sentiments. Is it possible from your point of view?

A.K.: It is a very difficult question and it is related to several different problems. First, McCarthyism appeared in the U.S. in response to the end of the [anti-Hitler] alliance between the Soviet Union and the West and the necessity to kill sympathies to a former ally that was becoming a rival. This process likewise reflected what was going on in the Soviet Union, including the campaign against cosmopolitans and all those who had been in contact with the West.

Even though it [McCarthyism] was not as cruel as the political purges in the Soviet Union, it also was tough. It hit two groups of the American elite: people who worked in the U.S. Department of State and were dealing with foreign policy as well as those engaged in propaganda, including Hollywood folks and journalists.

Today, there is no such situation, because there is no need to kill sympathies toward Russia, because, objectively, there wasn’t this sympathy. In addition, Russia is not the main rival for Americans. They are preoccupied by China, the Middle East or non-state actors that are more decentralized. Yet the process of demonization is certainly going on. But, again, ironically, it brings about opposite results, because it boosts Putin’s publicity and increases the interest toward Russia.

RD: There is an opinion that Russia and the U.S. are hardly likely to see eye-to-eye because of their different interest and, most importantly, values: While the U.S. tends to be liberal and democratic, Russia is rather conservative. Do you agree such clash of values is the reason of differences between the countries?

A.K.: First, America is a very conservative country. One should not judge America by watching Hollywood movies. On the contrary, there are a lot of parallels, especially, between the America South or Midwest, on the one hand, and Russia and its regions. Actually, they have the same or very close psychology. I warn against exaggerating these differences, because we have rather more similarities.

We should use it in our favor. Moreover, for the last two decades, when a number of protestant churches in the U.S. started changing their positions on homosexuality and accepted same-sex marriages, a significant number of conservative and religious American turned to Orthodox Christianity, because it is one of the most conservative Christian branches.       

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk together after laying a wreath at the Zakovkzalny War Memorial in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Photo: AP

RD: Despite recent U.S. attempts to restore diplomatic negotiations with Russia (I mean the visits of American high-profile officials – John Kerry and Victoria Nuland), a lot of experts are very skeptical about these overtures. They don’t see it as a game changer because of an increasing gap in interests and values. If so, if such diplomacy doesn’t work, what should Washington and Moscow do to repair the damaged relations?

A.K.: Actually, I believe that it is not only a symbolic visit, but also it can lead to a practical solution, because there is a series of fields where the United States needs Russia’s support. This includes the ISIS threat, North Korea and Iran. There are many problems which are impossible to resolve without working with Russia. That’s why I see this visit as a breakthrough, an attempt to improve U.S.-Russia relations without creating a buzz about it.