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Mitt Romney: Russia not an enemy, it's 'our geopolitical adversary.' Huh?

Mitt Romney criticized President Obama Sunday, saying he lacked foresight in dealing with Russia. But Romney stopped short of calling Russia an enemy, trying to make a more nuanced point.

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Mitt Romney, seen here speaking at CPAC in 2013, said Sunday that President Obama could have done more to dissuade Russia from annexing Crimea.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, as we know, have been able to indulge in a bit of "I told you so" lately over the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Ms. Palin told Fox News earlier this year that in 2008 "I accurately predicted the possibility of Putin feeling emboldened to invade Ukraine because I could see what kind of leader Barack Obama would be."

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And Mr. Romney's assertion in the 2012 presidential debates that Russia was America's top geopolitical foe – a pronouncement that President Obama openly mocked – has given him new life on the talking-head circuit.

On Sunday, that meant a chance to throw verbal darts at Mr. Obama on CBS's "Face the Nation." Romney duly obliged, saying Obama's stance toward Russia was characterized by "naiveté" and "faulty judgment."

What was more interesting than the obligatory political target practice, however, was the nuance in Romney's comments Sunday. While not new, the comments may prove increasingly prescient as Obama and the world seek to recalibrate how to deal with Russia going forward.

On one hand, they were classic Romney. One has difficulty imagining Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan – the great political communicators of our time – ever using the words "geopolitical adversary" on television, much less twice in the space of eight minutes, as Romney did Sunday. It is a phase that bespeaks academic condescension, and Romney, after all, never quite nailed the common man thing in 2012.

Yet, at length, Romney found his inner cable guy and hit his point. "They [Russia] are not our enemy, but they’re an adversary on the playing field of the world."

He offered examples: In the United Nations, Russia sides with Syria and Iran and North Korea, essentially endorsing their bad behavior at least in part to counterbalance American and Western influence. It offered temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the man who many in the United States view as a traitor. And, of course, it has attacked – either militarily or though cyber strikes – former Soviet states leaning Westward, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Estonia. 

Is Russia our enemy? Are we being compelled to go to war with Russia? No.

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Yet Romney contends that Russia under President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly acted directly to undermine American influence "on the playing field of the world." That makes Russia a "geopolitical adversary."

And in Romney's view, the stakes are huge.

"This is a playing field where we’re going to determine whether the world is going to see freedom and economic opportunity or whether it’s going to see authoritarianism," Romney said. "And Putin wants to be an authoritarian. And that’s not something the world needs or wants."

So how would the Ukraine crisis have been any different under a President Romney? Basically, he said he would have expected the worst from Mr. Putin, telling him before the Russian invasion ever began what he would have faced should he tamper with Ukraine. But even then, Romney conceded, such measures only have the potential to change the outcome. Putin might not have much cared.

More significant were the tone of Romney's comments. While he dismissed the idea that the world has regressed into a second Cold War, his prescriptions were clearly confrontational. Cold War-lite, perhaps. While Obama sought a "reset" with Russia to improve relations, Romney appears to favor a retrenchment to underscore that Russia's adventurism must be contained. 

Romney spoke of cementing military ties with Eastern European nations and resuming plans for a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland – both moves that infuriated Putin and therefore were abandoned or at least approached very gingerly under Obama.

There was the hope, of course, that reaching out to Russia would lead to friendlier ties and greater integration with the West. Now, Russia's actions in Ukraine have raised serious doubts about whether Putin shares any of these goals.

Obama, Romney said, "should have had the judgment from the very beginning to understand that Russia was not our friend, it had very different interests and ambitions than we did."

In the wake of Crimea's annexation by Russia last week, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue with Romney on that point.