What Russia's Election Means for our Presidential Candidates

What's remarkable about the U.S. election is how much it is about a change. In Russia, the exact opposite is the case. The candidate most in command, Dmitri Medvedev -- also known as Vladimir Putin's "Mini-Me" -- pledges to Russian voters as well as investors that he is the best candidate who can guarantee that things in Moscow will not change. Vote for him and nothing abrupt will happen, he seems to be saying. Indeed, he invokes Putin with the same obsequiousness and nostalgia as Republicans invoke Ronald Reagan. Medvedev, to borrow John McCain's overused phrase, has been a foot soldier in Putin's revolution, whatever that means.

What's also remarkable is how little Russia has surfaced in the American presidential election -- whereas it's pretty safe to say what Moscow's policy vis-à-vis Washington will be after next month's election (angry, hyperventilating, aggressive). None of the U.S. candidates have crafted any thoughtful policy on Russia beyond a few zinger catch-phrases that involve Putin's soul and Bush's gullibility -- most of them have fizzled. I am unaware of what these presidential contenders' policies are regarding some sticky issues like missile defense, Georgia, Kosovo, or energy security. Would any of them pull the plug on an Energy Department program that employs Russian scientists at institutes that supply nuclear technology to Iran? Would any of the candidates agree to rollbacks in nuclear warheads, as stipulated under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and as elder statesmen like Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Schultz, and Henry Kissinger have advised.

Moreover, what are the candidates' thoughts about reports that Russia has revived the Soviet-era psychiatric incarceration of political dissidents? I'm glad that Obama will sit down with our enemies -- and make no mistake, Russia is not our ally -- and talk to them. But will he invoke his inner Cheney and press them on uncomfortable issues of human rights and democracy rollback? Moreover, does hectoring countries like Russia even work, or does it just cause them to close their borders and clamp down on human rights groups? Russia just denied a visa to the head of Human Rights Watch, a ballsy move even by the low standards of Putin's administration.

In some ways, I'm almost glad our presidential candidates are ignoring Russia. It proves that Russia really only matters in the minds of flag-thumping Russians but is really an afterthought for most American voters (most of whom worry more about jobs being exported to China, not Russians bombing Eastern Europe). And it's hard to imagine Medvedev and McCain fishing together in Maine. But the candidates' hear-no-evil-see-no-evil non-policies toward Moscow could come back to haunt them. American universities' Sovietology studies departments have been drained of talent and potential presidential advisors (not that Condoleezza Rice's Cyrillic skills helped smooth U.S.-Russian relations any). Here's to hoping in the coming debates there will be at least one question directed at the candidates on U.S.-Russia relations. But not more than one. Don't want to feed Moscow''s already inflated -- yet strangely fragile -- ego.