When U.S. Senators Barak Obama and John McCain go live on air to battle over foreign policy in their first presidential debate Friday, last month's conflict with Georgia might mean that Russia will feature more prominently, the candidates' top advisers said.
Viewers should not expect a fiery debate on this point, however, as the topic is still likely to be overshadowed by the drama of the global financial meltdown and attention to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are on the ground.
"I think Russia is a secondary issue in foreign policy in this campaign," Frederick Kagan, a Foreign Policy adviser to McCain, said in a telephone interview this week.
"The United States is at war [in Iraq and Afghanistan], and these theaters are not within Russia," Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said from Washington.
Michael McFaul, Obama's adviser on Russia, said foreign policy was still a secondary issue for most American voters. "After last week's events [on Wall Street], this is even more so," McFaul said in a telephone interview from Stanford University, California, where he is a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
"The economic debate has wiped out" U.S. media attention on Russia, he said. "It will come up again Friday, but whether it is still alive next week, I am not sure."
Worse, there might be boredom ahead, as there is not much separating the candidates' when it comes to relations with Moscow, and the war in Georgia has not done much to change opinions.
"There is no disagreement between me and Michael about the nature of the current Russian regime and that has been true for some time," Kagan said.
But both agreed that the conflict had pushed the issue further up the agenda.
"The Russian invasion of Georgian territory was a pretty fundamental turning point in international history," Kagan said, adding that the debate about Russia would have been even milder without the conflict over South Ossetia.
McFaul said the present discussion was already markedly stronger than in the primary debates, where Russia "was really an afterthought."
McFaul offered another reason why Russia might not be such a tame topic after all.
While the candidates' positions on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan were quite well known, Russia was a relatively new issue.
"People don't know much about their positions," McFaul said. "It can be more volatile."
As might be expected, his opinion of McCain's position - that some of his statements in the past have been "reckless bluster" - was lower than his take on Obama's position, which he described as more "nuanced."
McFaul scoffed at the notion that McCain was tough on Moscow while Obama was soft.
"I just hate those terms to be honest. I don't know what hard-liner, soft-liner means," he said, suggesting that the more interesting question is who has the more effective strategy for defending American national interests.
The problem with McCain, he argued, was not so much that he was taking a hard line but that he had no strategy for Russia.
As an example, he singled out McCain's demand to expel Russia from the Group of Eight.
"I don't know whether this is hard line or soft line, I just think it is bad policy," McFaul said.
Obama's has said the move would pose a greater risk by isolating Russia.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Obama appears to be more popular among Moscow's political elite than McCain.
"McCain would simply be a catastrophe - for the whole world," said Sergei Markov, a State Duma deputy in the Kremlin-friendly United Russia party.
He called the Republican candidate a "mad pensioner" and described his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, as a "housewife, chosen by mere chance."
Markov also accused McCain of warmongering and put him in the neoconservative camp, which had "organized the war in Iraq, was the catalyst for the war in South Ossetia, is ready to go to war with Iran and might lead to World War III."
He echoed earlier comments by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, calling the conflict in Georgia "a Cold War campaign against Russia" that helped McCain catch Obama in the polls.
McCain has a record of critical comments about Putin, having described him as a "a dangerous person" and said he looked into his eyes he saw three letters "a K, a G and a B" - in reference to U.S. President George W. Bush's statement after his first meeting with then-President Putin that he had looked into his eyes and "got a sense of his soul."
While McCain is sticking with an extremely critical approach, Obama may yet to have made up his mind.
Christopher Preble, director for foreign policy studies at the CATO Institute, cautioned against labeling the Illinois senator as the more "liberal" foreign policy maker. While McCain had indeed taken a tough stance toward Moscow, "Senator Obama just does not have the same long track record as McCain," he said.
Preble pointed out that Democratic officials like Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke had been "pretty hard line" vis-a-vis Moscow.
Nicolai Petro, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, argued that campaign rhetoric was not necessarily a strong indicator for what policies would be adopted after a new government is in office.
"Much depends on personal relationships," he said in a telephone interview, adding that regardless of who wins, their foreign policy team won't be clear before next spring, when the relevant positions in the new presidential administration have been filled.
The debate, to be held at the University of Mississippi, begins at 8 p.m. local time, 11 a.m. Moscow time, and will be carried live on CNN and the Internet.
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