My latest at FPM deals with the expected return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia, The stage managed announcement at the United Russia party congress on Friday, surprised few people, despite current President Dimitry Medvedev’s desire for a second term. It was apparently always going to be Putin and in the piece, I speculate about a third presidential term for him.
Putin is supporting Medvedev for prime minister, which has caused a rift in the senior levels of government with reformers. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, one of the only officials trusted by foreign investors in the Russian government, says he would step down if Medvedev was made prime minister. Kudrin wanted the office for himself and would chafe at serving under Medvedev again, given their disagreements over liberalization.
It is unlikely that Putin will radically change course, continuing the reforms begun by his successor, simply because he will have to. “Russians will continue down the road of privatization and diversification away from oil, not because they like to, but because they will be forced to,” said Ivan Tchakarov, chief economist for Renaissance, a Moscow investment bank.
Might economic problems at home curtail Putin’s aggressively anti-Western foreign policy? Closer to home, this might be the case. Russia will always see the former Soviet republics in its sphere of influence and open to meddling, but Eastern Europe could be a different story. It is likely that Putin will refrain from openly threatening the former Soviet satellites, as he did when he bullied Poland and the Czech Republic into refusing the offer of a US missile shield. As much as his nationalist outlook would cause him to seek to influence former Warsaw Pact nations, he will need their investment and markets in the next few years as Russia moves from an export to an import economy.
But it is in the Middle East where Putin will cause the most trouble. He will no doubt continue the current policy toward Iran, partnering with the Islamic Republic on weapons sales and the transfer of nuclear technology. This almost certainly means there isn’t much chance of Russia voting for more stringent sanctions against Iran at the UN to prevent them from building a bomb. Russia is already playing a key role in the Iranian nuclear industry, agreeing to remove used fuel rods from the now operational reactor at Bushehr and taking them back to Russia for processing. Russian technicians are also training Iranian personnel at the plant, which would make a military strike on the reactor very hazardous, as it would likely lead to the death of Russian citizens.
The White House is putting on a brave face regarding Putin’s expected return to the presidency. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that “the reset has always been about national interests and not individual personalities.” This may be true, but it was also clear that the administration and the State Department preferred dealing with President Medvedev, he being seen as more pragmatic and reform-minded. The US also believed that it might even wean Medvedev from Putin’s control.
In truth, as the Guardian points out, this was wishful thinking:
Over the past four years Medvedev has done nothing to dispel the impression that he is anything other than a useful seatwarmer, his time in the Kremlin a legalistic blip in an epoch of endless Putin rule.
If anything, the orchestrated announcement that Putin would be a candidate for president shows that it was always Putin in the driver’s seat and Medvedev a very junior partner in their “tandem” governing arrangement.
A Republican in the White House would make a difference in our relations with Russia only at the margins. Unless it was a hard core conservative ideologue, arms control would still be a priority as would cooperation on issues relating to nuclear proliferation. These are so clearly in the interest of the US that only someone besotted with ideological fervor would cut off our nose to spite our face and ignore them.
I think a Republican president might have second thoughts about sponsoring Russia for membership in the WTO - or at least try to tie our support to an issue like Iran sanctions or Russian assistance with peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But it apparently wouldn’t bother Putin that much if we refused to sponsor Russia’s membership since he doesn’t think much of the organization.
If Obama is re-elected, the danger I see with Russia is his overarching desire to leave a mark on history. This could lead to too many dangerous concessions in arms control agreements at a stage in negotiations where it is critical we maintain some semblance of a useful deterrent. Of course, this desire is not unknown among presidents from Washington to Bush. But Obama truly sees himself as a world-historical figure and his high opinion of himself may lead us into dangerous territory.
Russia hasn’t been anything like a democracy in the last 15 years. Our own diplomats, according to Wikileaks, refers to the Putin-Medvedev tandem as a “mafia government.” A third Putin term will see further consolidation of state control and an erosion of what’s left of freedom.