Within hours of his inauguration as president last week, Putin issued a flurry of decrees, among them ordering good relations with the United States. The command came with some caveats, of course, including the requirement that the United States refrain from meddling in Russia’s internal affairs, a troublesome stipulation because the two countries differ greatly on what interfering in internal affairs means.
Still, the change in pitch has been remarkable since the anti-American rhetoric began in earnest in late November, when Putin, then a presidential candidate, made a thinly veiled accusation that the United States was financing attempts to interfere with Russian elections.
The oratory grew more strident in December, when Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting street protests in Moscow, suggesting that the demonstrators were in the pay of Americans.
U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul was hounded by aggressive camera crews and wild accusations in the Russian media, culminating in a confrontation in late March, when he asked camera-wielding pursuers whether they were eavesdropping on him so they could follow his movements. Since then, he has been left alone.
Some say Putin’s decision to skip the G-8 meeting, being held at Camp David, and send Medvedev instead is a way to voice his displeasure at the U.S. criticism of Russia’s crackdown on protesters. But others who see him face to face say he’s usually not that subtle. Of late, his representatives have been criticizing the United States’ treatment of protesters, saying disproportionate force has been used in breaking up Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, among others.
Hard line unlikely
At the height of the anti-Americanism, many analysts here contended that Putin’s words were intended for domestic consumption — that he found it convenient to blame Russia’s problems on external forces while running for office.
That view remains widely held, although Putin’s circumstances have changed since then. He took over the presidency weakened by questions about the fairness of the election and by persistent protests against him in Moscow, which may affect the course he pursues.
“If he feels he is weakening, no one knows what the results will be,” said Mark Urnov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics. “I suspect any effect on foreign policy will be minimal. We don’t have the resources to back up a really hard line.”
Russia’s interests, he said, lie in peaceful collaboration with the West.
Urnov said he hopes the United States will demonstrate a friendly attitude toward Russia and look for areas of cooperation, avoiding policies and statements that can be construed here as belittling Russia, which could provoke tough talk from Putin. But even a stern reaction from the president, Urnov stresses, would probably be limited to talk.