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.
“Maybe I am too optimistic,” Urnov said, “but if we analyze his previous behavior, we see tough talk but rational behavior.”
One certain flash point is the Magnitsky Law — backed by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), among others — which if enacted would freeze assets and bar Russian officials connected to human rights abuses from receiving U.S. visas. The congressional bill was named in memory of Sergei Magnitsky, a corruption-fighting lawyer who died in pretrial detention after he was accused of the crimes he uncovered.
Russian officials have lobbied strenuously against the law and made it clear that they consider it provocative. In his decree on good relations with the United States, Putin referred to the Magnitsky bill, telling his Foreign Ministry “to work actively on preventing unilateral extraterritorial sanctions by the U.S. against Russian legal entities and individuals.”
The bill has deep support among Putin critics here, who see it as a way of singling out wrongdoers among their countrymen without being anti-Russian.
“The Magnitsky bill is a very good thing, and the U.S. should keep emphasizing that there is a difference between the Russian people and those in power,” said Dmitri Oreshkin, an organizer of a movement supporting fair elections. “This bill targets people who break the law, not ordinary Russians.”
U.S. policy toward Russia should be tough but polite, Oreshkin said. The United States should avoid pronouncements about promoting democracy in Russia, he said, and emphasize educational and cultural exchanges that would give ordinary Russians direct knowledge of the United States.
One of those encounters occurred this week, when jazz pianist Herbie Hancock performed in Moscow. The event was sponsored by the U.S. State Department through its American Seasons program, which has brought a number of American performers to Russia, beginning with the Alvin Ailey dancers last summer.
The 1,700-seat International House of Music was well-filled, and the audience was knowledgeable and wildly appreciative.
As she was leaving the venue after the performance, Inna Valentik, a 52-year-old Muscovite, frowned when reminded about all the anti-American allusions that had been filling the airwaves until recently.
“I don’t like all of that, the way politics can divide us,” she said. “Here, listening to this music, you feel only happiness. It goes straight to the heart, and you feel the truth.”