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Russia to Romney: How could we be your No. 1 enemy?

Memo to Mitt Romney from Russia: Didn't the cold war end more than two decades ago?

That pretty much sums up the reaction from many Russians today, where Mr. Romney's "enemy No. 1" jab at Moscow has been played over and over by official media, amid mounting public outrage, since he uttered it in response to President Obama's inadvertently overheard blunt political chat with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of a security conference in Seoul.

Mr. Obama was seen making nice with Mr. Medvedev and, apparently unaware that microphones were on, asking the Russians to dial back their objections to US missile defense plans until after he's reelected in November, when "I'll have more flexibility."

Romney pounced, not merely at the appearance of secret diplomacy by Obama, but seemingly at Russia itself.

"This is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They — they fight every cause for the world's worst actors. The idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed," Romney said in an interview with CNN. "The idea that our president is planning on doing something with them that he's not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming."

While the suggestion of electoral connivance between Obama and Medvedev has made little impression in Russia, which has just been through its own carefully orchestrated presidential campaign, Romney's comments hit like a bomb.

"It came as a shock. You just don't expect to hear that from someone who's running for US president," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "I thought an enemy was a country or force that seeks to kill Americans or destroy the US, not a country like Russia that has some civilized differences, which it expresses in forums like the [United Nations] Security Council."

Attitudes toward the US have fluctuated among Russians since the USSR collapsed more than 20 years ago. During the 1990s, the Kremlin sought to align itself with Western policies, but over the past decade, under now president-elect Vladimir Putin, it has carved out a more independent stance, often irritating Washington with uncooperative acts, such as two UN Security Council vetoes of resolutions aimed at international intervention in Syria's crisis.

But most Russian experts point out that occasional quarrels over big issues like NATO expansion and missile defense — which often have a distinct cold war ring to them — are more than compensated for by many examples of Russia's progressive integration into the world community over recent years. Russia is a member of the G8, it sits on the Council of Europe, and late last year it finally joined the World Trade Organization. The military confrontation that once divided Europe into armed camps has dissipated, most former Soviet allies are now members of NATO, and this month Russia even offered its former enemy the use of an advanced Russian airbase in the Volga region of Ulyanovsk to help ease the strain of resupplying embattled NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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