Trans-Atlantic policy on Russia needed
John McCain was talking about Russia's "KGB apparatchik-run government," its aggression against Georgia, and America's support for the entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.
An underlying problem with the attack on Georgia, McCain said, was that it "has everything to do with energy" and Russia controlling Europe's energy supply. More: for McCain, the Georgia events underscored the Russians' threats "to regain their status as the old Russian empire."
What did Barack Obama think about all that hard language? His answer: "I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues."
All the same, did Obama have any major differences with what McCain just said, the moderator of the presidential candidates' debate asked two weeks ago.
Clear enough? Yes, actually, in spite of the razor-edged tone of the campaign exchanges since.
Reality says whoever gets elected next month - financial crisis, recession, ruin apart - the new president is headed for a clash with some of the United States' European allies, headed by Germany, over what Obama describes as a "resurgent and very aggressive Russia."
A fault line became clear last week when Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to St. Petersburg to see President Dmitri Medvedev. Although an obvious second banana to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Medvedev is the Russian who, in explaining how Moscow's troops wound up in Georgia, asserted Russia's "privileged role" in the affairs of its neighbors, updating the Brezhnev Doctrine on the Soviet Union's eternal right to interfere.
Last week, seemingly timed to Merkel's presence, Russia announced that it planned next year to deploy a new offensive nuclear missile designed to penetrate antimissile defenses.
At the St. Petersburg talks themselves, a new, bilateral energy deal got added to an already long list of exclusive German-Russian arrangements. But nothing prickly was said about Russian rearmament, or Russia's plans to double its troop strength in the two Georgian provinces it has effectively annexed.
Verdict: for the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the meeting's bottom line was, "Thaw Follows Short Ice Age."
The result appears to be Merkel's readiness to urge reinstating postponed talks on a so-called Strategic Partnership between the European Union and Russia if Moscow's troops come out of "Georgia proper." (A decision which would smear EU vanishing cream on the Russian buildup to 7,600 men in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.)
Still in Russia, Merkel was also reported to have made clear she would not approve of Georgia and Ukraine receiving official status as NATO candidate members at a summit meeting of the alliance in December.
So much for push-back. Rather, here was Europe, with a German voice, adding another division to the list of its own disunity.
Not to mention the likelihood of a shuddering trans-Atlantic split during the new president's first 100 days in office
Indeed, in agreeing with McCain's debate statement on Russia - McCain said no to a new Cold War, and chose not to repeat his old call to kick Russia out of the G-8 summit group of industrialized nations - Obama insisted that Georgia and Ukraine "immediately" be given a plan for entry into NATO.
That action would effectively draw a red Western line for Russia in its attempt to rezone a region once under its total control.
But while the EU members of the old Soviet bloc see NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine as an existential gesture in defense of their independence, Germany, and very probably France and Italy, do not like the idea because it ruffles Russia.
If this, for most countries, speaks of their lucrative contracts and a wariness to challenge re-establishment of Russian zones of influence, it can appear as a matter of creed in Germany. It involves centuries of real desire for good relations but also stubborn German fantasies about the range of positive Russian response.
In a harsh view of current German attitudes, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a German who is a policy director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote:
"A mixture of wishful thinking and self-deception has become the basis of German Russia policy. It works hard at overlooking or talking away obvious changes. To all problems, rapprochement is the answer. If things go well, then relations should be deepened; when they go badly, all the more so."
Now the calendar is pressing the players to show their hands. The Russians are likely to try to demonstrate compliance with the agreement that requires that their troops be withdrawn by Oct. 10.
Interpreting what the Russians are actually doing should be at the heart of an EU summit meeting Oct. 15. The probability is that some EU members, regardless, will find an explanation sufficient to restart talks on a Strategic Partnership with Russia.
That pitches the Russia issue into the NATO summit meeting in Brussels in December, when President George W. Bush, who only saw soul in Putin's eyes, will still be representing the United States. It's not a good moment for decisions of profound importance, and points forward to another NATO summit meeting in April.
A senior NATO diplomat described dealing with the Russians then, combined with the issue of Georgia and Ukraine's entry process into NATO, as an imperative in terms of credibility for whoever is the new American president.
This allocates but a few months for the enormous political task of working out a trans-Atlantic line.
It also leaves the two American presidential candidates - Obama who said so, and McCain who did not contradict him - as pretty much in accord on tough, key aspects of a new approach to Russia.
Coming before a world audience of American voters and people affected by the election, their tacit flash of unity has the feel of an international engagement. Russia and the United States' allies in Europe might well take note.