The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
How Will Russia React to Obama, Round Two?
Published on November 9, 2012

The question posed by my title doesn’t quite hit the mark. Just as one cannot really speak of a single “America”, there is no one “Russia” anymore but rather several Russias. But while each different Russia has its own interests, attitudes and moods, there is something that unites them all with respect to America: The United States is on all of their radars. All of the various Russias hope to use the United States and its policy to serve their own domestic agendas. (In contrast to this, Russia largely fell off America’s radar after the fall of the Soviet Union.)

How, then, will the various Russia’s react to the renewed Obama presidency? Let’s start with the official Russia—that is, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Along with David Kramer, I have already discussed what the Russian establishment and Putin’s regime could have expected from either possible election result on November 6. I will only add here a couple of brushstrokes to that landscape now that we know the results of the election. Moscow’s official rhetoric and actions over the past year—that is, after Putin officially returned to the Kremlin—allow us to conclude that the Kremlin’s position on the United States would have been based on the following premises no matter who America hired as boss in the White House:

America is weak. It is teetering on a “fragile foundation” and will continue to decline. The United States today can no longer continue as a world leader, and its ongoing fall from grace will give Russia more room to maneuver on the global scene.

America needs Russia more than Russia needs America. The United States needs Russian help on Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Central Asia, nuclear issues and counterbalancing China. All of these issues put the Kremlin in a stronger bargaining position with respect to Washington.

America’s decline and European stagnation demonstrate that liberal democracy is in crisis. This fact justifies the Kremlin’s decision to return to the idea that Russia represents a “unique civilizational model.”

America is bogged down by domestic problems. It is turning its focus inward, thus making it less prepared to react to the Kremlin’s turn toward repression. Moscow can dismiss Washington’s criticism; its bark is worse than its bite.

The Obama Administration will fear the rise of Russian nationalism and populism more than it will fear Putin’s machismo. That means that Washington will continue its policy of acquiescence and will try not to irritate the Kremlin.

The Kremlin should use this period of American decline to establish a more assertive policy toward the West. Moscow has to dictate the rules of the game to Washington. The Kremlin’s newfound assertiveness will be reflected in the updated version of Russia’s foreign policy doctrine. Moreover, Moscow is ready to use revenge policy, too, as a means of appeasing the hardliners.

Russia need not worry that America will ignore it, say the Kremlin’s foreign policy architects. A nuclear-armed Russia is much too important for global security to be ignored.

The Kremlin may view a second Obama term as a boon in its project to update its foreign policy stance. That new stance would help consolidate the idea of Russia as an independent civilization that desires to be integrated into the globalization project on its own terms. There are signs that the Kremlin architects of this update and pro-Kremlin experts believe that President Obama can hardly be expected to take a more assertive position with respect to Russia, which will mean undermining his “reset” past. Even if Obama wanted to rethink the “reset”, these experts  believe, he could afford neither to ignore Russia nor to confront it. That is why they expect the Obama administration to continue to play its current hand in its poker game with Putin’s Kremlin.

However, the above-mentioned key premises hold independently of how President Obama plays his cards. To be sure, Moscow will take a softer approach with Obama than it would have with Romney, but we are only talking about a rhetorical difference here, not a substantive one. At any rate, the question of how Moscow would have treated a President Romney is now academic.

For Russia, foreign policy has always been a means of solving domestic problems. The Kremlin’s attitude toward the United States, today more than ever, is formed by the logic of the Putin regime’s survival. This logic dictates that the Kremlin must turn to repression, and must return to old Soviet practices that inevitably lead to a more aggressive stance in the global arena. The Kremlin’s struggle with its domestic enemies, which is an essential element of this survival strategy, also necessitates that it struggle with external enemies too. Putin’s team, like its Soviet predecessors, can’t afford to acknowledge that its domestic enemies have popped into existence of their own accord; rather, these enemies have to have been bought and paid for by the hostile “abroad.” And neither Poland nor Georgia will suffice as an external enemy; indeed the very idea would be humiliating for Russia. The external enemy, rather, must be a foe worthy of a Russia that has been “raised from her knees.” Only America (even a weakened America) is a worthy adversary. Thus, the logic of the Putin regime’s survival dictates that America must be public enemy number one, irrespective of who its leader is. True, in order to fit into this role the American President has to wield a harsh rhetoric even as he cooperates pragmatically in areas of mutual concern. But is this what Obama will do as he rethinks the reset?

In September 2012 Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly declared that “the reset is over.” Putin had already shown himself to be done with the reset months ago. And they were both right, of course: The reset, as a policy of tactical trades and an imitation of a warm embrace, really is over and done with. Even many “resetchiks” now accept this as conventional wisdom.

However, the Obama administration failed to notice this, and it has thus been forced to react clumsily to the Kremlin’s turning its back—a fact which has strengthened the Kremlin’s conviction that it is Washington that needs Russia more than the other way around. The reset formally ended last year, when America became a tool for inciting the “search for an enemy” during the Kremlin’s election campaign. Many had assumed that this was merely a temporary injection of hostility, and that, as before, the Kremlin would return to a more accommodating mood once the elections were over.

This was the wrong assumption. From now on, the Kremlin’s mantra will be to “reset the reset.” The question is: What will this mean in practice? At the moment it is not clear. Putin’s Kremlin has been clearer about what it rejects than it has about what it supports. There will definitely be some ground for cooperation. Lavrov has stated that Moscow is interested in broadening its economic ties.

But how can one expect American capital, technology, and know-how to flock to Russia when a corruption and predatory bureaucracy is already driving domestic investors out of the country? How can one expect American businesses to feel welcome if the United States is named as Russia’s key external enemy? There is perhaps one way to solve this puzzle: if U.S. investors agree to operate according the Kremlin’s rules—if, like some of them are doing now, they seek shelter under the personal “umbrella” of Putin.

But what could the United States expect in return? One could hazard a few guesses… Khodorkovsky comes on mind. He said that Russia exports two kinds of things: commodities and corruption. Is America ready to become a partner in this process? There are other ways, perhaps, that a new “reset” could be implemented: in a European joint missile defense or in an arena far from an important area (like, say, the Arctic). But I nevertheless wonder how these suggestions can be combined with the Kremlin’s search for an enemy, or its determination to make America its key threat?

Having watched the Kremlin’s actions and rhetoric, one can rest assured that its updated strategy with respect to America will be built around two principles: containment and the “don’t meddle and don’t preach” rule. The first principle entails that Moscow attempt to deter America where possible, or to play a spoiler role (just as Moscow is doing in the Security Council). The second principle means that the Kremlin will try to force Washington (and the West in general) to endorse the principle of total sovereignty, which would mean forcing it to reject quite a few human rights norms that legitimize external influence in the internal affairs of non democratic states (among them the Helsinki “basket”, the “responsibility to protect” principle, and the principles of the Council of Europe).

Indeed, I see in all of this a Kremlin attempt to return to the Soviet past, circa the detente period, when economic, cultural and security cooperation between the Soviet Union and the West was developing quite well despite the nature of the Soviet regime. But today the Kremlin wants the West to tolerate its reproduction of anti-Western hostility within Russia. That means, in effect, that the Kremlin wants to continue cooperating with the West when it comes to integrating Russia into global economic structures (the OECD is the current goal), even at the same time as it closes off the country to Western influence. We did it with the Soviet Union, the Kremlin leaders are saying, so why can’t we do it now?

I have a hunch that the Kremlin ruling team actually believes that the chances for the survival of the personalized power system is even more favorable today. They believe this, first, because America and Europe are in crisis; second, because the Russian elite has been personally integrated into the West; third, because the Western establishment has demonstrated its readiness to accept the Kremlin’s rules of the game, and even to work for the Kremlin.

In this context, there is no need for Moscow to play the imitation game that until recently dominated relations between Russia, on one hand, and America and the West, on the other. The new philosophy (“yes, we are different, but we can cooperate”) doesn’t require warm embraces, and it allows for a colder, more reticent relationship, devoid of the previous optimism and illusions. The “don’t meddle and don’t preach” policy pushes both sides toward another type of behavior. Both Washington and Moscow can silently agree not to take each other’s criticism seriously, instead considering it as mere empty ritual that doesn’t affect cooperation on tactical issues. Let the State department blast the Kremlin’s repressive machine. Let the Kremlin blast the Obama Administration for its “imperialism” and “hegemony.” This mutual scolding, short of real action, could become part of the new game. Moscow will continue to ignore U.S. criticism of its worsening human rights and democracy record. The ability to ignore these Western laments will form a basis for consolidating the fundamentalists, Russia’s own “Tea Party” faction, which today views Putin as too liberal and soft.

Tactical cooperation based on “don’t meddle and don’t preach” diplomacy will prevent the relationship from freezing solid. But at the same time it will have other effects. It will water down the “values” dimension of politics, thus undermining America’s normative reputation and producing a “non ideological” area of politics, which others will take as proof of American cynicism. It will make the Russian opposition (and democratic forces in other countries) more suspicious of America and its goals. It will undermine America’s ability to think strategically. It will strengthen the Kremlin’s attempts to use the West to legitimize itself.

If the U.S. Congress passes the Magnitsky Act and begins to ramp up criticism of Russian domestic developments, one can be certain that the Kremlin will retaliate. Lately, the Kremlin has deployed preemptive tactics (for instance, kicking USAID out of Russia and discontinuing the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program). What, then, would its retaliatory tactics be? For starters, they would include well-worn gimmicks, such as the new Russian treason laws prohibiting opposition groups from dealing with U.S. organizations, or the harassment of U.S. diplomats and journalists. Would U.S. businesses also be made to suffer? Not necessarily. And in any case, the U.S. business community has learned how to survive in the Russian aquarium. Thus the limited basis of U.S.-Russian relations also limits the Kremlin’s retaliatory options.

But besides this, the Russian ruling elite would hardly try to raise tensions up to the point of serious confrontation. The rentier class, which depends on the West for its survival, is not ready for that. But at the same time it can’t control the logic of mutual mistrust, which, once it gains momentum, can become difficult or impossible to stop.

The most likely probability is that we will face a long period of mutual suspicion, or for at least as long as the Russian Matrix (that is, the personalized power system, which relies on the “search for an enemy”) remains in place. There is one way the open tension could be eased: if Washington were to prove itself ready to abide by the “don’t meddle and don’t preach” rule. If in the coming years we witness a warming relationship between the current Russian regime and the Obama Administration, we should ask ourselves what price Washington is paying for that?

We mustn’t forget about the Other Russia: the Russia of the opposition, which includes a variety of groups with different ideologies. This Russia is frustrated by the reset with the Putin regime, and it is mistrustful of Washington no matter who occupies the White House (Obama is definitely no hero to the Russian opposition). It is very strange, not to mention rare, for the Russian opposition to line up in any position with the official Kremlin. To be sure, the opposition’s suspicion of America has different roots; it is triggered by a belief that America wants to preserve the Russian status quo of top-down rule out of a fear of change and uncertainty. Will the new Obama presidency change these moods? Possibly, but only in one case: if America shows that it will at least try to contain the corrupt Russian elite that operates in and through the West. The opposition hardly wants U.S. interference in domestic Russian affairs; it, too, would rather do without American meddling and preaching!

Will Washington under President Obama be ready to pursue a new strategy on Russia? The Magnitsky bill and its mechanism (if it is passed into law) will be a litmus test for whether the Administration is at least willing and able to think anew. But so far, the writing on the wall says that America is turning its gaze inward and is not ready for any breakthroughs abroad. Really: why bother about Russia? The Kremlin is smart enough to cooperate. As for the future Russian turmoil, who knows when it will come? And if it does, it certainly won’t come before the next presidential election.

And so here we are: On the Russian side, hardly anyone views the future of U.S.-Russian relations with any optimism. Here again both Russia’s, official and oppositional, are in agreement. The growing crisis of the Russian system means that each Russia’s relations with the outside world are held hostage to domestic developments. True, this does not preclude the possibility of cooperation, but will this cooperation help Russia’s transformation, or will it prolong life of an obsolete system?

The only hope is that U.S. engagement with a decaying Russian system, and with a regime that has entered the agony of its terminal phase, will not totally undermine relations between America and the new Russia that will emerge sooner or later. This demands from the second Obama Administration not a willingness to make tactical trade offs but a capacity to Think Big, and to push its conceptual horizons well beyond the end of its final term.

[Cover image 1 and 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.