Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as Russia’s President this spring will once again align real and formal power in Russia, as they were during his earlier two terms in office. Although the Russia prime minister is nominally subordinate to the president, Putin has dominated Russian politics throughout Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency. As if to underscore that point, both Putin and Medvedev have implied that they had agreed on Putin’s return as a condition for Medvedev’s assumption of the presidency in 2008. (The Constitution banned a third consecutive term for Putin.) Although that was likely true only in a general way—that Putin reserved the right to return should circumstances warrant—the public insinuations stripped Medvedev of credibility as a leader and his achievements in office of any lasting political worth.
And there were achievements both at home and abroad, no matter how artificial the so-called Medvedev-Putin tandem may now appear. Abroad, Medvedev’s more “modern” image eased the repair of relations with the United States and Europe after the dark days of the last two years of the Bush Administration. At home, Medvedev’s presence as a second pole of power, albeit very circumscribed, fostered a much-needed broader elite discussion of the challenges facing Russia and the appropriate policy responses to them, enticing progressives suspicious of Putin to participate; Putin’s presence, meanwhile, reassured the more retrograde elements that Medvedev’s “reforms” would not spin out of control as Gorbachev’s had a generation earlier. As a result, Russia’s standing in the world improved and a spotlight was turned on the requirements for Russian modernization in the face of the corrosive effects of “legal nihilism.” Little was accomplished in a practical way in this latter portfolio, but there was at least hope, and hope can kindle morale and, ultimately, action.
Putin has now chosen to forego those benefits, and he has extinguished that hope. Neither Medvedev nor Putin has yet provided a satisfying explanation as to why. Medvedev’s argument that he deferred to Putin because of the latter’s consistently higher poll ratings has been ruthlessly—and rightly—ridiculed. Political developments of the past year suggest two rather more plausible explanations.
First, tension—if not significant policy differences—emerged between the two men as Medvedev tried to assert himself as a leader last spring. Insiders claim that Putin was especially perturbed by the vehement public denunciations of him by some Medvedev supporters. Second, the world turned more dangerous, with the looming threat of a double-dip global recession as the eurozone crisis metastasized and the profound geopolitical uncertainty and flux highlighted by the Arab revolts developed. Medvedev was inadequate for parlous times: he did not command respect; he did not project power; he did not look or act presidential. Russia simply needed a stronger, tougher, more credible leader. The obvious choice was Putin.
he announcement of Putin’s return came at a time when U.S.-Russian relations had already become testy after steady improvement during the first two years of the Obama Administration. Moscow blamed the lack of agreement on missile defense on American intransigence, specifically Washington’s refusal to take seriously Russian concerns about the potential vulnerability of its nuclear deterrent force to American defenses. It threatened retaliation after the State Department acknowledged it had put visa bans on certain Russian official for human rights abuses. It repeatedly denounced alleged NATO violations of the UN Security Council resolution on Libya in pursuit of regime change. Putin’s return will do nothing to improve the already soured, post-reset atmosphere.
To be sure, the Administration said it had based its policies on national interests, not personalities, and welcomed the opportunity to work with Putin as it had with Medvedev. As if to prove the point, it continued to work hard with Russia to close out the negotiations on Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization (accomplished this past December). Yet from the beginning it has made clear its preference for Medvedev. Before his first trip to Moscow in summer 2009, President Obama praised Medvedev as a modern leader, while lamenting that Putin appeared to be a man with “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”1 Vice President Biden suggested to some Russian opposition politicians in Moscow last year that he had privately advised Putin against running for a new term as President.
Moreover, Obama looked comfortable with Medvedev. They are of the same generation, both intellectually inclined, aloof lawyers with a fondness for modern gadgets (Obama and his blackberry, Medvedev and his iPad) who aspire to make their marks in domestic reform, not foreign policy. By contrast, Putin is a biker with a well-honed machismo who rebuilt the state during his presidency in pursuit of Russian great-power restoration. By all accounts, he considers Obama to be a weak leader, unable to rally elite support for his domestic and foreign policies. These starkly different personalities, and the less than flattering mutual assessments now a matter of public record, will not make for good chemistry when the two men hold their first bilateral meeting as Presidents, likely at the G-8 summit in Chicago shortly after Putin’s inauguration in May. That will not make cooperation based on shared interests impossible, but it will make it decidedly more difficult. Personal chemistry matters even when leaders would rather it didn’t.
Putin’s return also energizes the critics of the reset, providing another argument that the Administration has misread Russia and that its policy is thereby fatally flawed. Criticism had been mounting even before the September announcement of Putin’s return to the presidency, as Republicans looking forward to the 2012 elections sought to tarnish a policy that the Administration touted as a major achievement. The main line of criticism was that the policy has been wholly transactional—concessions on missile defense, downgraded relations with key former Soviet states (especially Georgia), and tempered criticism of Russia’s authoritarianism in exchange for Russian support for a “world without nuclear weapons”, sanctions against Iran and supply routes across Russia to Western forces in Afghanistan. The argument has been, in short, that the Administration has paid a heavy price in both principles and allied anxieties for dubious or marginal practical gains. Medvedev’s rhetoric, implying he would move Russia in a more democratic direction, had provided the Administration with some cover; that cover has now been stripped away by the massive public protests against the rigged December Duma elections and the imminent return of Putin, “someone known to harbor intense Soviet nostalgia”, as House Speaker John Boehner recently put it. Although foreign policy is unlikely to figure large in the American presidential campaign, Russia’s presidential election in March (which the West will find seriously flawed), Putin’s inauguration in May and subsequent meeting with Obama, the fourth anniversary of the Russo-Georgian war in August, and continuing, possibly large, public anti-Putin protests will provide opportunities Republicans are unlikely to forego to attack the reset.
The Administration itself has been sensitive to charges that relations have been largely transactional and that it has sacrificed principles for pragmatic gain, even though it insists in public that it has not engaged in trade-offs. Starting late last year, it has been more public and sharper in its criticisms of Russia’s democratic failings, objecting to the legally indefensible second conviction of the fallen oligarch (and Putin enemy) Mikhail Khodorkovsky and pressing for a credible investigation of the jailhouse death of Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer arrested after exposing high-level corruption in law enforcement agencies, and prosecution of those responsible. More recently, in October, a senior State Department official traveling in Russia acknowledged that the reset had not produced meaningful progress on human rights and that the United States would redouble its efforts in this area.2 Secretary Clinton’s sharp public criticism of the Duma elections punctuated that point.
In this policy adjustment, the Administration is wagering that Moscow believes it is benefitting sufficiently from improved relations so that it will not undo the reset over mounting human rights criticisms. This might have been the right wager originally, in part because there was evidence that Medvedev himself wanted to fight human rights abuses, especially with regard to Khordorkovsky and Magnitsky cases. There can be no such illusions about Putin, who has repeatedly stated his profound distaste for what he sees as unwarranted interference in Russian domestic affairs, including its criminal justice system, and who has charged that the West is behind recent anti-Kremlin unrest. Nevertheless, for domestic political reasons—and, to be fair, because it believes it is the right thing to do given Putin’s authoritarian tendencies—the Administration will focus more on human rights and democracy. And it will quickly run up against limits of the criticism Putin is prepared to accept for the sake of improved cooperation in any other area, particularly one of such importance to the Administration as Iran.
ore broadly, Putin’s return will steadily lay bare the limits of the transactional approach to U.S.-Russian relations. This is not because he is opposed in principle—given the political realities, after all, Medvedev could never have pursued the reset without Putin’s full if tacit support. The problem is that the easy trade-offs have already been made; future ones will hew closer to the core interests of both sides. Compromise will thus grow elusive, particularly in the absence of trust, and Putin’s return will strain whatever trust has been restored over the past few years. The current dispute over missile defense could be a harbinger of further difficulties.
In this regard, the former Soviet space merits special attention. Stiff competition there poisoned the entire relationship during Bush’s second term. It has not done so under President Obama in large part because he decided to moderate the competition in return for Russian support on Iran and Afghanistan. But Moscow has already signaled that it will not support further Iran sanctions, and the West is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Absent these reasons for moderation, the competition for resources, particularly energy, and the control of transportation routes will certainly reemerge as primary drivers of U.S. policy.
Managing the competition will be difficult because it derives from a fundamental conflict of interest. Historically, Russia has seen primacy in, if not outright control of, this region as central to its great-power status. Reasserting primacy has lain at the heart of Putin’s foreign policy, as manifested by his initiative in creating a customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan three years ago and by the constant pressure on Ukraine to join Russia (and perhaps others) in a common economic space. Tellingly, shortly after he announced his decision to return to the Kremlin, Putin published an article calling for a Eurasian Union, along the lines of the European Union, among all the former Soviet states. The United States, for its part, has made it clear since the breakup of the Soviet Union that it will not recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. The Obama Administration is no exception in this regard.
Avoiding the return of stiff geopolitical competition would require, as a first step, that both Washington and Moscow recognize a current reality neither is now prepared to squarely admit: namely, that Russia is no longer the dynamic core of Eurasia, even if it has been more successful than other former Soviet states. Indeed, despite Putin’s own rhetoric about Russia’s revival, and despite alarms about Russia’s resurgence in some Western circles, for the first time since Russia emerged as a great European power three centuries ago, it is now surrounded beyond the former Soviet space by countries and regions that are more dynamic than it is, economically, demographically and geopolitically.
That dynamism starts with a robust China; its insatiable appetite for resources threatens to make the resource-rich regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East captive to its markets. It is already penetrating into Central Asia, where it is on the verge of replacing Russia as the region’s leading commercial partner, if it has not done so already. Religious ferment in the Muslim world has spilled into Central Asia and the Muslim regions of the Caucasus, challenging the stability of the fragile states there. Even Europe, despite its current disarray, acts as a magnet on former Soviet states, most notably Ukraine, which continues to tilt toward Europe even under a supposedly pro-Russian president. Under these circumstances, the challenge for Russia is not reasserting primacy; it is maintaining its presence.
In meeting this challenge, no country could be of more assistance to Russia than the United States, which itself has strategic interests all along Russia’s periphery. To gain American cooperation, Moscow would have to acknowledge that it needs an active U.S. presence along its borders. And to ease Moscow’s concerns, Washington would have to acknowledge that the threat to its own interests is not Russia’s resurgence, but rather Russia’s withdrawal from the former Soviet space. Neither Moscow nor Washington is prepared for such acknowledgements at the moment, and Putin’s return only diminishes the chances that either will be in the near future.
fter three years of the reset, U.S.-Russian relations have reached a plateau. That much was clear by the middle of last year. There is, however, no obvious path forward to closer relations as core interests on which the two countries’ interests conflict, notably missile defense and the former Soviet space, have risen to the top of the agenda. Even had Medvedev stayed on as President, the road ahead would have been rocky. But Putin’s return exacerbates the situation, for he symbolizes the stark differences in values, interests and outlook that still divide Russia and the United States and feed the dark images of Russia that, rightly or wrongly, pervade the American political establishment. One day the two sides will likely be forced by circumstances to recognize that their geopolitical need for each other transcends their differences, but that day will not come soon.
1Associated Press interview, July 2, 2009.
2“U.S. Says Human Rights Losing out in ‘Reset’”, Moscow Times, October 17, 2011.