MOSCOW // For most of the US presidential election, the issue of Washington-Kremlin relations clearly took a back seat to the Iraq war and Iran's nuclear aspirations, despite the fact that relations between the former Cold War foes continue to deteriorate on several fronts. That all changed when US ally Georgia tried to retake its breakaway republic of South Ossetia, prompting a crushing military response by Russia, which repelled Georgian forces and pushed into Georgia proper.
Suddenly, John McCain, the Republican candidate, and Barack Obama, his Democratic counterpart, were both pressed to clarify their positions on Russia. In the most recent high-profile example, Tom Brokaw asked the candidates in their Oct 7 debate if Russia, under Vladimir Putin - the powerful prime minister but not head of state - was an "evil empire", as Ronald Regan, the former US president, once described the Soviet Union.
Mr Obama said Russia had engaged in "evil behaviour", while Mr McCain said "maybe". Neither candidate in the Nov 4 election will be a particularly pleasant partner for Russia, but the Kremlin is more interested in working with an Obama administration rather than with Mr McCain and his often harsh criticism of Russia, according to Russian legislators and political analysts. "Both candidates are rather bad for Russia," said Sergei Markov, a member of Russia's lower house of parliament and a Kremlin-connected spin-doctor. "McCain is extremely anti-Russian, and Obama is being advised by Mark Brzezinski, son of [the former US national security adviser] Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the most prominent 'smart' Russophobes."
It was Mr Markov who, after the war between Georgia and Russia broke out, went on Russian national television and said Georgia's attack on South Ossetia was a plan hatched by Dick Cheney, the US vice president, to rally foreign policy hawks and secure Mr McCain's victory. Mr Putin later echoed the conspiracy theory in an interview with CNN, though he did not identify a specific candidate who could benefit from such a turn of events.
"If my suppositions are confirmed, then there are grounds to suspect that some people in the United States created this conflict deliberately in order to aggravate the situation and created a competitive advantage for one of the candidates for the US presidency," Mr Putin said in the interview. Mr McCain has repeatedly called to exclude Russia from major international institutions and, as a stock phrase, has said he sees "a K, a G and a B" when he looks into Mr Putin's ideas, as opposed to George W Bush, the US president, who famously said he saw Mr Putin's soul.
Mr Markov called Mr Obama "the lesser of two evils", noting that both candidates backed Georgia in the conflict but that Mr Obama, 47, and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, 43, are both young, modern leaders who might be able to find some common ground. "I'm sure they grew up reading many of the same books and watched many of the same movies," Mr Markov said. Mikhail Margelov, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, told the Russian online magazine Political Journal that regardless of who wins, the next US president would have to be "practical".
"For Russia, in general, it is not so important who will become the next US president," said Mr Margelov, who attended both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention this year. Mr McCain is an "emotional person" who carries the responsibility for the difficult legacy of the Bush administration, Mr Margelov said. "Obama is more reserved, more focused on pragmatism," Mr Margelov told Political Journal. "In the beginning it will be difficult to work with either one of them."
Key conflict issues between Russia and the United States include the US push for Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine, which has not been as enthusiastically endorsed by western European members, and US plans to place elements of a missile shield in eastern Europe, which have angered Russia. Mr Obama has been less vocal than Mr McCain with his support for the planned missile shield, which the United States said was aimed at a possible threat from Iran but which Russia claims is a threat to its own national security.
Meanwhile, the Russian public is largely indifferent to the US presidential election, though those who are following the race would prefer Mr Obama to win, according to a poll released this week by the independent Levada Center. Sixty-four per cent of Russians said they were not following the race at all, 35 per cent said they were paying attention to it, and six per cent said they were watching the race closely, state news agency Interfax cited the poll as saying.
Thirty-five per cent of respondents following the race said they preferred Mr Obama, while 14 per cent backed Mr McCain, according to the poll, which was conducted nationwide from Oct 10 to 14. Nonetheless, history has shown that Democratic administrations have often taken a tougher line on the Soviet Union and Russia than Republican administrations, said Vladimir Pozner, a journalist and political commentator who frequently appeared on US television during the Cold War to explain the Soviet government's positions to American viewers.
"Generally, in the Soviet Union and in Russia, the leadership found it easier to work with Republicans rather than Democrats, with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," Mr Pozner said. "They are seen as less ideological than the Democrats, less likely to play the human rights card. Even the most anti-Soviet Republicans, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan, turned out to be easier to work with than Jimmy Carter or John F Kennedy."
Mr Markov, however, was adamant: "McCain would be a catastrophe for Russia." A Russian foreign ministry spokesman was less forthcoming when asked about the relative merits of the US presidential candidates. "Nobody is going to give you a comment like that," he said. email@example.com