Putin may restore tougher tone to relations with U.S.

September 26, 2011

Vladimir Putin, the former and next president of Russia, has long had a sharp-tongued prickliness about the United States. “Hooligan,” he snapped at one time. “Parasite” was his most recent description.

In contrast, Russia’s current president, Dmitry Medvedev, cast himself as the tech-savvy reformer with a Twitter account , and he mostly smiled at the West.

When Putin, currently Russia’s prime minister, makes the very short trip back to the Kremlin next May from his current digs, he will likely bring a tougher tone to Moscow’s engagement with the Obama administration, and the next administration, and possibly the one after that.

At a conference of the United Russia party over the weekend, Medvedev announced that he would step aside for Putin, raising the prospect that the former KGB agent, who was president from 2000 to 2008, will now rule Russia until 2024.

“There is a really good chance that this makes the atmosphere more frosty,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “We know that Putin is more distrustful of the relationship as a natural condition than Medvedev.”

But it is not yet clear whether there will be any substantive change to a U.S.-Russia relationship that has improved significantly since it reached a post-
Soviet nadir after the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. After all, according to most analysts — including American diplomats in Moscow — Putin was always the paramount figure in the political tandem he formed with Med­vedev, his young protege from their shared home town, St. Petersburg.

As a U.S. diplomat put it in a cable leaked by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.”

“I assume Putin never left, or at least that any significant decision on foreign or domestic policy was taken with his support,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Where it could make a difference at the margins is that [President] Obama seemed to have a good personal chemistry with Medvedev. He is going to have to try to develop that with Putin.”

Administration officials argue that the “reset” in relations has produced several diplomatic successes, including the ability to move U.S. troops and materiel to Afghanistan through Russian airspace, Russian support for tougher sanctions against Iran and a nuclear arms treaty signed in Prague in April 2010.

U.S. and Russian negotiators also have made progress on a missile defense agreement, according to Hill, and the United States supports Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. Administration officials said they believe Putin will continue to do business where the interests of the two countries intersect.

“Putin has taken a tough-minded view of the relationship,” said a senior administration official, noting that Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton all made a point of visiting Putin when in Moscow. “He understands the essential importance for Russia of economic modernization and what that means in terms of a shared interest. Putin is nothing if not practical,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a foreign leader frankly.

Deep-rooted grievances

Not everyone is as sanguine about future relations, and some experts argue that Putin nurtures some deep grievances about the United States, issues that did not animate Medvedev in the same way. Long before the Russia-Georgia war, Putin resented the George W. Bush administration’s abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the U.S. role in the former Soviet Union and NATO’s expansion eastward.

Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, said Putin selectively approved some cooperation with the West, especially to foster Russia’s technological modernization. Last month, for instance, Putin, who consolidated state control of the country’s hydrocarbon sector, approved a deal between Exxon Mobil and the state-owned oil company Rosneft to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic.

“He recognizes that in certain areas there is a place for investment and cooperation,” Cohen said. “However, on the traditional security issues, such as missile defense, NATO, the near abroad, the Middle East, there will more friction.”

When Putin left the presidency in May 2008, Russia had regained a sense of swagger after the chaos of the 1990s was replaced by an oil-fueled boom. But the country has been buffeted by the global economic crisis, and it has prompted some reassessment within Russia’s elites about the reliance on hydro­carbons for future growth.

As Putin returns to power, Russian oil production is plateauing and there is no certainty that prices will again rise to the levels that once flooded the Kremlin with cash. Corruption is entrenched despite government rhetoric about battling it. And political choice has atrophied.

“Someone has to take on the challenge of modernizing Russia,” Kuchins said. “If he was Putin the stabilizer, he needs to become Putin the modernizer.”

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