Resetting Putin

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

A consensus is emerging among Russia watchers that Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency will have little impact on the country’s foreign policy and, in particular, on U.S.-Russia relations. Andrew Kuchins, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., has eloquently summarized this sentiment:

“The possible election of Putin as the President of Russia will not signify a fundamental change in the direction of U.S.-Russia relations. The main reason for this is the fact that no major decisions on foreign or domestic policy during the period of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency have been made without implicit or explicit support from Mr. Putin.”

In other words, Medvedev’s foreign policy decisions were always those of the tandem, and the tandem’s decisions were always those of Putin. Or, paraphrasing the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovski: when we say Medvedev, we mean the Tandem, and when we say the Tandem, we mean Putin.

Not everyone is subscribing to this relaxing opinion. For example, the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron, in an article titled “Watch out for Putin, and Russia,” points to what he calls Putin’s “profound mistrust of the West” and warns that “the United States must prepare for…destabilizing developments.” Aron predicts that no progress will be made on European missile defense and expects that Russia will be less cooperative on Iran.

And, naturally, there are always folks trying to find a common ground between optimists and pessimists. Thus, the Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan attempted to sound neutral:

“Now, [U.S. President] Obama is going to have to get used to a new partner – Vladimir Putin.”

Is he really? Remember, if Putin is elected, he will be sworn as the next president of Russia in May 2012. At this time, President Obama will be in the middle of a tough re-election campaign; the last thing on his to-do list will be improving a frosty relationship with his newly inaugurated Russian “partner.” Not to mention the fact that any attempt to cozy up with Putin will be immediately interpreted by Obama’s Republican opponents as Putin “appeasement.”

Obama and Putin met once, in July 2009, during Obama’s visit to Russia, and this was a tough one-on-one, according to the people present. Obama can’t blame anyone but himself: shortly before the meeting, he described Putin as having “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.” This comment was apparently intended to signal the administration’s support for President Medvedev’s modernization agenda. In hindsight, however, it is clear that Obama’s whole approach – and, in particular, his jab at Putin — was misguided.

It appears unlikely that this mistake can be corrected quickly. True, Obama and Putin will have opportunities to meet face-to-face in 2012: once at the G8/NATO summit in Chicago in May and then at the APEC meeting in Vladivostok, Russia in November. It’s, however, highly doubtful that these bilateral mini-summits will produce anything more substantial than mandatory photo-ops.

And then, in November, the presidential election in the U.S. will take place. Obama has about a 50-50 chance of losing it, and should this happen, the agenda and the dynamics of the Washington-Moscow dialogue for the foreseeable future will be defined not by Putin, but by the next U.S. president, a Republican. Incidentally, Mitt Romney, currently the leading Republican presidential candidate — and, therefore, the likeliest “new partner” for Putin – remarked recently that the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations “has to end.”

Of course, Obama may still get re-elected, but his ability to conduct Russia policy he wants will be further limited by the expected loss of the Democratic majority in the Senate, something that the apologists of the “nothing-is-going-to change” approach seem to overlook. It is not a secret that Obama invested heavily in his relationship with Medvedev — on the assumption that supporting Medvedev was a way to signal U.S. support for reforms in Russia and, of course, on the assumption that supporting Medvedev will improve his chances to be elected for the second term. Now, having been proven wrong, Obama will feel utterly uncomfortable in his communications with Putin. Making things even worse, Senate Republicans – most likely, in majority — will obstruct his every move vis-à-vis Russia, however benign.

In 2008, Henry Kissinger perceptively observed that when Putin was president, “Russian policy … [was] … driven in a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice.” Regardless of whether Putin “trusts” or “mistrusts” the West, he has all the reasons to believe that his offer of strategic partnership to the United States had been rejected by anti-Russian policies of the Bush administration. What has Putin heard so far from the other side of the Atlantic that persuaded him that the U.S. now considers him a “new partner?” That he is not supposed to change Russia’s U.S. policy?

Naturally, any speculations on the direction of Russian foreign policy during Putin’s third and, possibly, fourth presidential term are premature, yet, the very notion that nothing will change because Medvedev’s past initiatives were implicitly or explicitly supported by Putin – and who knows that for sure? – appears as dangerously naïve. After all, Putin’s acquiescing to Medvedev’s decisions – or choosing not to veto some of them – doesn’t prove his endorsement of these decisions, much less a willingness to pursue them. If American presidents regularly throw away foreign policy initiatives of their predecessors, why should Putin not feel free to do the same?

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Resetting Putin

  1. Thanks Eugene.
    For lack of a better term, the “natural interests” of a given country can override differences. During the Iran-Iraq war, I recall the son of the exiled Shah of Iran offering support for Iran’s war effort. Many White Russians saw reason to support the Soviet WW II effort in recognition of imperfect conditions from what was otherwise desired. During the Russian Civil War, the rival Reds and Whites each had concern with some Polish actions undertaken by Pilsudski. Back to WW II, the captured Soviet General Vlasov got in some hot water for making pro-Russian comments, running counter to what the noticeably anti-Russian wing in Germany sought. Vlasov was banking on pro-Russian elements in Germany gaining influence that would lead to changed policies and Stalin not making it. (The subject of Vlasov is contentious. I’ve done a good deal of looking into the varied views of him. Something to briefly consider is how during WW II not every ally of the USSR was a Communist. Conversely, not everyone associated with the Axis was the same.)
    In present times, many Serbs aren’t so pleased with how the Serb government deals with the leading Western governments who support Kosovo’s independence. If the Serb government was such a puppet, it would go along with recognizing Kosovo’s independence. I’m of the view that if the “Serb street” wasn’t so against Kosovo’s independence, the Serb government would formally give up Serbia’s claim to the disputed territory in question.
    Regarding present day Russia, I sense that there’s a relatively healthy outlook within the Russian foreign policy establishment. On this particular, any differences of opinion are probably kept behind closed doors for the purpose of seeking to have the image of a unified stand.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I like your term “natural interests.” Now, if you believe that Russia’s natural interests are defined exclusively by Putin — or Medvedev, for that matter — everything gets easier. But this isn’t so: there are great many special interests in Russia that often contradict each other, including in the area of foreign policy. The traditional “western” analysis usually ignores this complexity.
    Thus, a conflict over UNSC Resolution 1973 is painted in strictly “personal” colors: pro-Western Medvedev vs. anti-Western Putin. In fact, (reasonably) pro-Western faction of the Russian foreign policy establishment violently collided with the MIC lobbyists whose only concern was their arms contracts with Qaddafi.

  3. Eugene,
    The aforementioned “natural interests” (to mean everyone pretty much in agreement) is typically evident along with “special interests.” An example of the latter includes people of Armenian and Azeri backgrounds in Russia preferring that the Kremlin takes their respective sentiment on Nagorno-Karabakh.
    Another aspect of opposing UNSCR 1973 has to do with the apprehension of formally approving a powerful military bloc to have their way on a geopolitical issue. I recall we agreed that the “humanitarian intervention” aspect has a good degree of BS, as shown by how such armed action isn’t used in a number of other conflicts.
    Regarding “natural interests,” a number of the so-called “Russian liberals” would do better in Russia if they didn’t crap on their country to the delight of the anti-Russian leaning crowd. Under the more difficult circumstances of Nazi captivity, Vlasov didn’t say some of the things that some present day Russians say, as they’re promoted at a number of foreign venues like…

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Well, Mike, a “broad” definition of “special interests” should include those who want harm for their country:) Sometimes, they actually succeed. Remember Lenin with his “We want defeat of our government (in the WWI)?”

  5. Following up on a thought in my last set of comments, the support for a certain kind of formality can serve as a negative precdent in the future.
    Around the time when the ICTY was instituted, I heard some NPR preferred pundits speak of how Putin could be tryed regarding Chechnya.
    From a legal standpoint, note the greater outrrage over the just announced decision on Tymoshenko versus what has gone on at the ICTY. BTW, note how Thaci is currently being reviewed in Kosovo, instead of going to the Hague like others.
    I don’t think that Kosovo is better able to try Albanians than Serbia minus Kosovo is of trying Serbs. Never mind how there’re no such trials related to some other conflicts where atrocities have occurred.

  6. Lenin largely succeeded on account of the Russian suffering that resulted from WW I – inclusive of how the Russian government chose to fight that war – which in retrospect arguably led to greater Russian casualties.
    A rough analogy takes into consideration what might’ve very well occurred if the USSR threw everything it had immediately after the Nazi attack.
    The aftermath of WW I was a noticeably changed Europe that likely would’ve changed in a more peaceful way without such a major war or (better yet) any war.
    In the years leading up to WW I, Bismarck suggested that the Balkans wasn’t worth a major European conflict. However, when push came to shove, he supported Ottoman and Habsburg efforts against pro-Russian sentiment in the Balkans.

  7. Mark says:

    Mitt Romney’s policies vis-a-vis Russia might be even worse than you think, since he has tapped Leon Aron as his foreign policy advisor on Russia. I can’t see what could go wrong with that…better look around your basement, see if you can find some old drums that could hold a couple of months’ supply of gasoline.
    As I have said before, if the consensus is that Medvedev was little more than a talking head with Putin moving his mouth, we must also accept that the liberalizing reform ideas for which Medvedev received grudging acclaim in the west were actually….Putin’s liberalizing reform ideas. The Right can’t have it both ways – that Medvedev blazed a regulatory trail that made the Russian liberal opposition turgid with hope – but he was just a hapless dupe when it came to beating the shit out of defenseless Georgia and other uncomfortable glimpses into Putin’s crusading soul.
    The more the Right slobbers and moans over Putin’s leadership, the better I like him – since those who claim to be leaders on the part of the western Right are such catastrophic failures at it. You wouldn’t be comfortable with an endorsement for a house painter from a blind man, would you?

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I’m writing a piece on Romney’s position vis-a-vis Russia…
    On Medvedev vs Putin, why do you believe that the consensus is right? I personally don’t buy it. Medvedev and Putin represented (I’m kind of tempted to speak of Medvedev in past tense) different factions of Russian elites, with Medvedev being a talking head for his faction and Putin being mouth for his. The fact that Medvedev lost only means that he and his faction lost. It doesn’t mean, IMHO, that everything he was saying was Putin’s ideas. Just read Putin’s recent speeches; he even doesn’t mention “modernization.”

  9. Mark says:

    Actually, I didn’t say the consensus was right at all. I said that the yammering Right cannot have it both ways – either Dmitry Anatolyevich was a leader and independent policymaker in his own right – consulting Putin, certainly, as one who had access to such experience would be foolish not to, but making up his own mind and working hard for what he thought was worthwhile, OR he was a transparent puppet with Putin’s hand up the back of his jacket. In the latter case, the modernizing reform ideas must of a necessity have been Putin’s ideas – either by virtue of Putin’s directing their implementation, or by his veto of ideas he disliked or was unwilling to support. But the Right cannot pick and choose, saying on the one hand everything Russia did which met with the disapproval of the international community was Putin’s fault, while on the other, Medvedev was at the bottom of everything they liked.
    As to my personal opinion, Medvedev made his own way and made up his own mind after availing himself of counsel, as all decent leaders do. Medevedev was also, however, the driving force behind the slapping-down of Saakashvili, which the latter richly deserved. Pity so many of his countrymen paid the ultimate price, instead of just him.

  10. Obama has utilized the likes of Brzezinski, McFaul and Biden.
    Aron has offered some pragmatic analysis, that runs counter to some of the standard BS out there.
    The reality is that the leading American presidential candidates aren’t likely to bring on someone offering the kind of valid overall perspective on the former Communist bloc which typically gets downplayed.

  11. Eugene says:

    “Pick and choose” is exactly how governments work. Legal reforms was prepared by the presidential administration without (almost) any interference from Putin. On the contrary, it was largely Putin’s attempt to torpedo the UNSC R1973 through his man Lavrov. Medvedev intervened in the very last minute by firing the Ambassador to Libya.
    I think you’re making a mistake by reducing everything happening in Russia to personal relations between Putin and Medvedev. However close the two might be, they represent different special interests. The conflicts between these interests were periodically boiling to the surface in the past 3.5 years, like Medvedev’s order to remove ministers from the boards of state corporations (Medvedev didn’t have HIS ministers in these positions). I don’t think it’d be an exaggeration to say that the conflict between two major “camps” was what caused Medvedev’s not running for the second term.

  12. Eugene says:

    I agree with you on Aron: his positions are definitely anti-Kremlin, but he’s knowledgeable of the facts on the ground and quite reasonable. At certain point, I was surprised by his scorn of the Freedom House’s ratings of Russia.
    I predict that should Romney be elected, Aron will reproduce the career path of McFaul. Will be interesting to watch.

  13. Eugene,
    As suggested, having Aron in the mix of presidential advisors isn’t a serious turn for the worse. This opinion is based on the status quo in the American body politic.
    Along with yours truly, Aron at around the start of 2005 cautioned against the expressed euphoria of a new era in Ukraine. There’ve been some other reasonable moments from him.
    On the matter of presidential advisers, I agree that Stephen Cohen and Anatol Lieven (not sure if he’s an American citizen) would reflect something different and improved. Even then, there will be room for some valid disagreement at times.
    Meantime, more can be done on the commentariat side. The much discussed topic of “Russia’s image” continues to see a good deal of shortcomings at the more high profile of venues. Cranking the same old, same old (some of which is good with other instances where there can be definite improvement), while leaving out better options is counterproductive.

  14. Mark says:

    “Pick and choose” is exactly how governments work…I think you’re making a mistake by reducing everything happening in Russia to personal relations between Putin and Medvedev.”
    That being the case – and I have to say if this is so, it sounds pretty much like every other government in the world – why does the western press constantly suggest Putin is maneuvering behind the scenes to gather ultimate power into his own hands, which is really a pointless exercise since he has held it all along? It sounds to me like Putin is just a regular guy, and a couple of ambitious people could thwart him easily if they worked together. Medvedev appears to have done so, and he’s a political novice. This is certainly a departure from Red Putin The Baby-Eater; he sounds like any coalition-builder, working against the same set of roadblocks and contrasting ambitions, and the only things he has going for him are experience and personal popularity. Nothing to see here, journalists – return to your homes.
    An article appeared today in the Calgary Herald; I read it on the plane – the headline reported Putin fears a “Soviet-Style Collapse”. On review, he actually didn’t say that at all, but he did say all the gains made during his last presidency could be wiped out in a few careless moments, which I took to be a direct shot at anyone fantasizing about sweeping liberal reforms and large-scale privatization of state assets. It also suggests he sees national stability as fragile and easily toppled. This might well offer a glimpse of a more nationalistic foreign policy and a more cautious engagement with the west. It sounds to me like that would be wise, given all the stamping and shouting and drawing of lines in the sand. As I may have suggested before, if every time you hold out your hand people keep spitting in your palm, after awhile you offer your fist.
    As “reasonable” as Mr. Aron may be on some issues, I am mindful that he is a reliable retransmitter of the trope that Russia’s population is shrinking fast, and that intellectuals in particular are deserting the sinking ship of state in record numbers. This has repeatedly been exposed as a mixture of wishful thinking and what comes out of the north end of a southbound bull. Therefore, I have to question the uniformity of his alleged impartiality.

  15. So there’s no misunderstanding: overall a not so enthusiastically stated “reasonable” within the realm of academics (include Pipes, Brzezinski and McFaul) having ties to US presidents.
    Far from being a sharp downward spiral with Aron in the mix.

  16. Mark says:

    Understood, Mike – however, I think you are either ignoring or underestimating just how far the Republicans have moved to the right while Obama has been President.
    As Russia advisor to President Romney (and I’m still betting those two words will never be seen that close together), Mr. Aron would make recommendations on Russia from the perspective of America’s dominating it and bending it to its will. If he failed in that obligation, he would last about 2 minutes in conservative cuckoo-land, where The Base is both so angry and in love with conquest that it would field a battalion of pickup trucks to attack Russia tomorrow if Romney asked, and so ignorant that it believes that would be geographically possible.

  17. Mark,
    Perry, Bachman and now Cain are falling short in unseating Romney’s front running position as Repub presidential candidate. Note that Christie (who many sought to join the competition) recently endorsed Romney.
    There’s a good deal to be displeased with across the board, which relates to my views. That Romney is considered a high profile moderate option to other Republican presidential candidates is a tell all of the limits in that party. The Dems have their limits as well.
    You highlighted some aspects of Aron. On the other hand, Obama has relied on McFaul and Brzezinski. Upon request, I’ll briefly highlight some of their views over the course of time.
    Mind you I lean towards the impression of an American political structure being a kind of one party state, divided between two parties, whose predominating views aren’t so diverse on a number of issues besides Russia. I don’t debate that most Americans grudgingly go along with this status quo, instead of seeking greater change – a point relating to my not being so down on Putin seeking another presidential role. Should Americans be the only ones who grudgingly accept a political status quo in their nation?
    The manipulative influences of dominating structures are to be found across the political spectrum. If I’m not mistaken, you’re aware of what has been said of the Tea Party. Likewise, one senses this situation with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Somewhat similarly, replacing suspect governments in the former Communist bloc with neocon to neolib leaning Western NGO influence (which Aron, McFaul and Brzezinski have links) is problematical.
    On your cuckoo-land reference, consider ML and OBH in your native Canada, as well as how some law abiding residents of Western countries have been denied entry into that country, on the basis of heavy-handed reasoning. Likewise, there’s a global presence of reasonable folks in the US, Canada and elsewhere who (ideally) should be productively working together to improve things. I sense that the more pragmatic of folks in the existing power structures exhibit the potential to go along with greater change, upon feeling their own situation to be safe enough.

  18. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Yes, I was also very much surprised with Putin’s words. In essence, he admitted that everything that has been created over the past decade isn’t solid (“sewn with white threads”) and needs further work. IMO, this wasn’t even meant to be a criticism of Medvedev, it was more like a criticism of himself. That fits well the explanation he gave in his latest TV appearance on why he wants to return to presidency: it’s in his habit to finish things he started.
    Now, you can feel that he wasn’t happy with the way Medvedev was replacing “white threads” with “black.” Yet, I saw nothing in his responses indicating that HE knows how to do that. That’s the problem, IMHO.
    As for Aron, I’m suggesting a “formula” all three of us could, hopefully, agree upon: of all Russia experts (and “experts”) around, Romney chose not the worst guy.

  19. Eugene Ivanov says:

    A quick note on the Republican candidates. I agree with you on Romney’s frontrunner position, but would like to argue that the debates aren’t the only — much less the best — way of defining the frontrunner. Primaries themselves are.
    Remember, Perry has $15 million in cash and who knows what happens to Romney the frontrunner when all this money goes into negative ads — as it surely will.

  20. Eugene,
    The cliche “pulse of the…” in this case “country”, suggests that Perry, Bachman and Cain aren’t electable when matched against a candidate, who is pretty well funded and viewed as a more moderate choice.
    Of possible interest, look who is down on Cain:
    Some would see the above commentary as a bit snobbish. In this instance, I’m in some agreement with the Canadian Frum, whose views I don’t typically agree with.

  21. Mark says:

    Mike; I agree that there are Canadians who espouse extreme views (although I’m not sure who “ML” is), and that the conservative movement is not representative of America as a whole, although it does potentially represent enough of it to get a Republican elected President.
    However, there are a couple of important differences; one, Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is not running for Prime Minister. Two, she’s not even from Canada; she is a Ukrainian immigrant, although she’s lived most of her adult life in Canada. Interestingly, one of the high-profile patrons of her Ukrainian-Canadian Relations Inc. (UCAN) public-relations government exchange program was Pavlo Lazarenko, oil monopoly sugar-daddy for Yulia Tymoshenko and recently arrested in 2004 for money-laundering in California. Bet she doesn’t talk much about that one. Anyway, she could not be said to be vying for the leadeship of a large group of crackpots, although she’s most definitely a crackpot herself.
    I stand by my assertion of the innate dumbness of the American electorate, at least the far-right conservative portion of it, which now apparently incorporates nearly all of the conservatives. Cain might be slumping at the moment, but the fact remains that conservatives cheered his 9-9-9 tax plan and it even catapulted him into the lead, where he still remains in some states. A detailed analysis by the non-partisan Tax Policy Centre, a subsidiary of the Brookings Institute, found that every American family that makes less than $200,000.00 per year would see their taxes go up, with the burden growing as it steps down the income totals in terms of percentage of income. People (or households) making less than 10,000.00 a year would see their taxes go up by more than 20%. People (or households)making more than $1 Million a year would get a tax cut of more than 20%. And conservatives stood up and cheered that plan.
    Even the other Republican candidates are backing away from it now, and it’ll probably sink Cain to somewhere near the bottom within a week – but the point remains that it was so broadly popular a week ago that it slingshotted him into the lead. The man is an idiot. And a very significant subgroup of the American electorate would have made him the Republican presidential nominee if the vote were held last week. Sloganeering comes home to roost, as too many voters look no deeper.
    Romney is an idiot, too – he just looks normal against the rest of the field, who are crazy idiots. There’s no side of an issue Romney doesn’t like, and citizens of an attention-deficit democracy simply forget what he said last week. He described the OWS protests as “class warfare”. He delivers the popular “teleprompter president” jokes while looking into a teleprompter. He quoted Winston Churchill when attempting to explain why he changes his mind so often – but the quote he used was actually John Maynard Keynes, father of Keynesian economic theory and loathed by conservatives. He’s both for and against privatization of social security. In 2007, speaking of bin Laden, he said “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person”. In 2011, when bin Laden was (allegedly) killed, He said “This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere”. That he looks sensible against foam-splattered nutjobs like Bachmann and Perry and Santorum is a measure of just how shallow the field is. He would be a vain, self-preoccupied twit as President, and that fact that he believes he can give you a tax cut and raise your taxes at the same time speaks volumes about his potential effect on economic recovery.
    Leon Aron might well not be the worst of the lot, but he’s far from the best and believes Putin is “dangerous”.
    Zhenya, I interpreted Putin’s statement less as self-criticism and more as a warning that a leadership choice which is an indulgent gesture to punish the ruling party for supposed inflexibility could have consequences far beyond the temporary flush of mean-spirited satisfaction. There should be no surprises to the west that a roaring economy built solely on energy price trends is unstable, as hardly a week passes that the west does not sagely note Russia might be doing OK, but all their gains are energy-related.

  22. Mark,
    I sense you don’t approve of denying some law abiding residents of Western countries entry into Canada for heavy-handed PC reasoning.
    That mentality essentially shuns (censors) material like:
    in favor of anti-Serb/pro-Bosnian Muslim nationalist propaganda.
    One of many examples of faulty media in Russia (include RT) and the West is how greater attention has been focussed on Luke Harding’s recent experience in contrast to what has been evident in Canada:
    I remember what some on the left said when Reagan was elected president. While his legacy has some questionable aspects, things didn’t turn out so bad as some said would happen. Regarding US foreign policy, keep in mind the American president prior to Reagan.
    On your other inquiry:

  23. As a follow-up to my last set of comments, in the US “the system of checks and balances” has been known to create a gridlock, which has periodically served as a way of preventing certain agendas from getting implemented. This situation explains why some Democratic and Republican presidents have been reviewed as having not lived up to their stated desires.
    On Russian-American relations, I try to be cautiously optimistic, on the basis that it isn’t in the best interests of either Russia or America to be at great odds with each other. Meantime, this view can stand to have have greater influence with improved English language PR and media efforts, at the more high profile of venues, interested in seeking such advocacy.

  24. Pingback: Enemy at the door? |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s