Within hours, Barack Obama would sharpen his own statement to include more direct criticism of the regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. Soon after, President Bush and an array of foreign leaders also began to place the full responsibility for the war on Moscow.
Obama, Bush and others made their shifts in tone as the brutal, disproportional nature of Russia’s response began to become clear. But McCain’s confrontational stance on the Caucasus crisis stems from a long, personal skepticism of Russian intentions, one that dates back to the Cold War and which eased only briefly in the early 1990s.
Indeed, McCain, who publicly confronted Putin in Munich last year, may be the most visible — and now potentially influential — American antagonist of Russia. What remains to be seen is whether the endgame to the Georgia crisis makes McCain seem prophetic or headstrong and whether his muscular rhetoric plays a role in defining for voters the kind of commander in chief he would be.
What is not in doubt is McCain’s view of Russia. His belief that Moscow harbors dangerous aspirations goes back a long way, as does his fervent view that the only way to quiet the Russian bear is through tough talk and threat of real consequences — and certainly not through accommodation.
McCain has suggested he sees Russia’s danger to its neighbors through a long historical lens. As far back as 1996, when Russia was near economic ruin and governed by an erratic Boris Yeltsin, he warned of the danger of “Russian nostalgia for empire.”
That belief has not changed. “I think it’s very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian empire," McCain told local reporters on his bus in Pennsylvania on Monday. "Not the Soviet Union, but the Russian empire."
McCain’s campaign sees the clarity of his stance, and that fact that Obama and others have echoed it, as a political plus, a sign of his seasoning on the international stage. It matches his straight-talking image, and it provides a useful contrast with Bush, whose critics in both parties say he has been naïve about Putin, whose soul he once notoriously claimed to have glimpsed.
McCain often quips that he only sees the letters KGB in Putin’s eyes.
“You have to be clearheaded about that kind of regime,” said Gary Schmitt, a national security expert at the American Enterprise Institute who praised McCain for “calling a spade a spade” regarding Russia.
“McCain’s been much more clear-sighted than the Bush administration or many of our allies in Europe.”
To critics, McCain’s stance is grandstanding with little effect beyond riling a nuclear power. Though few in either party think Putin is a democrat, many foreign policy thinkers see Russia as fundamentally less dangerous than the Soviet Union. The U.S. also needs to work with Russia on issues from nuclear weapons to Middle East diplomacy. European allies also rely on Moscow increasingly for energy supplies.
“This is a guy who grew up in the Cold War, was a military person and an honorable man, but has not changed his ways of thinking about Russia,” said Jonathan Elkind, a Democrat who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. The U.S. should be “explaining with precision what we don't like about their behavior, rather than saying he ‘looked into Putin’s eyes and saw KGB.’ That has an adolescent quality that gets us exactly nowhere.”
"Speaking directly to the Russians as opposed to in some pugnacious Cold War-fashion is what this modern challenge needs," said Matthew Brzezinski, an informal foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign. "What Russia needs to know is that it will be globally ostracized — and Barack Obama's global approach is different from the state-to-state balance of power approach that is visible in the McCain talking points."
McCain’s critics and allies agree that his views on Russia are heartfelt and go back decades, to the Reagan years.
"He was a Reaganite in the Cold War – that was a pro-democracy, anti-Communist approach,” said Robert Kagan, an informal McCain adviser at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who contrasted McCain with those more eager to support anti-Communist autocrats.
McCain supported Russia’s democratic and capitalist reformers in the early 1990s, and in 1993 he took on the chairmanship of the International Republican Institute, which gets federal funding to promote democratic reform abroad, a post he still holds.
“He was an ardent supporter of Russia’s democratic development” said Steve Biegun, who opened the IRI’s Moscow office and worked with McCain on Capitol Hill later in the decade. “He was certainly supportive of Yeltsin from the early '90s through the mid-90s.”
That cheerful view of Russia didn’t last long, as McCain became an early public critic of Yeltsin — and of the Clinton administration’s policy of supporting him. By Feb. 22, 1994, he was opposing the promotion of Clinton’s ambassador to Moscow, Strobe Talbott, to deputy secretary of state.
In a speech on the Senate floor, he accused the Clinton team of overlooking Yeltsin’s flaws and betraying Russian liberals. He faulted Talbott for not “confronting” the Kremlin, and accused him of yielding to Russian opposition to the expansion of NATO.
“We should make clear to Russia that we appreciate the importance of Russian stability to our own security,” McCain said. “But we should make equally clear to Russia that we are free to pursue all opportunities for enhancing our security and that of our allies.”
McCain, like many in Congress, also was appalled by Russia’s support for Serbia during the Balkan conflicts of the mid- and late-1990s. He emerged from the period a vocal critic, condemning Russia’s actions in the Balkans and its brutality in the breakaway province of Chechnya.
“[W]e must make abundantly clear to Moscow that we consider this action to be evidence that Russia cannot yet be trusted as good faith partners in preserving European stability,” McCain said during the second Balkan conflict in 1999.
When Yeltsin handed power to Putin from 1999 to 2000, some argued that the technocratic new strongman could stabilize Russia to the benefit of the West. McCain was not among the optimists.
“I suspect that John McCain was made privy to sensitive or classified info that we may have on Putin — his KGB past, things he’s done,” said Steve Clemons, a liberal foreign policy expert. “When Putin emerged as this highly capable strongman with KGB networks, I suspect that turned McCain off.”
In 2003, when Putin seized control of a television network that had been critical of him, McCain “really stepped up his criticism,” said Biegun.
McCain delivered a speech on the “new authoritarianism” in Russia aimed at waking America up to the threat from “a country that increasingly appears to have more in common with its Soviet and Czarist predecessors than with the modern state Vladimir Putin claims to aspire to build."
It was, says Biegun, consistent with McCain’s view that Russia shouldn’t be shielded from harsh criticism.
“He’s never put on blinders about Russia,” he said.
In the 1990s, McCain had called for making American financial assistance conditional on Russian behavior. But with oil prices high and the dollar weak, Russia has stopped needing the United States. Putin made that clear in a speech at a security conference in Munich last February, denouncing and mocking U.S. foreign policy with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and McCain in the audience.
McCain delivered the American retort.
“Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions, at home and abroad, conflict so fundamentally with the core values of the Euro-Atlantic democracies,” he said.
Now, McCain has led the harsh denunciations of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, though neither he nor any other leader has suggested that the West has any real way to blunt Moscow’s ultimate intentions. He’s also faced the accusation that his encouragement of Georgia’s dramatic defiance of Russia helped trigger the crisis. (A McCain aide dismissed that notion, saying Russia’s provocations forced Georgia’s response.)
McCain’s current foreign policy team, including chief adviser Randy Scheunemann, are largely drawn from the circle of neoconservatives who backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. To many of them, he’s a more authentic version of President Bush, whose public commitment to the spread of democracy, as they see it, was too often neglected in practice, notably in Russia.
“McCain was there a decade earlier [than Bush], and with greater consistency,” said Kagan.