The Putin factor

US-Russia relations are likely to cool off in the wake of Medvedev’s departure

Written by New York Times | Published: April 6, 2012 3:20:12 am

US-Russia relations are likely to cool off in the wake of Medvedev’s departure

In February 2009,US Vice President Joe Biden called for the reset button to be pressed in the US-Russia relationship,and for the next three years Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev fostered a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. However,the message I picked up from recent conversations in Moscow was that the reset is unlikely to survive Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in May.

The reset brought benefits to both sides. Moscow obtained an accord on sharing civil nuclear power technology,help with its WTO membership application,and an implicit understanding that the US would not directly challenge Russia’s key interests in its backyard (for example,in Ukraine).

The US benefitted from Moscow allowing men and supplies for the NATO mission in Afghanistan to pass through Russia. Moscow refused to deliver S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Both parties were happy to sign the New START agreement that will reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals.

Putin,who has remained the pre-eminent political figure in the Kremlin during the Medvedev presidency,allowed the reset to happen,though he never used the word. He is less of a natural diplomat than Medvedev,and has a less benign view of the US.

During the recent presidential election campaign in Russia,Putin resorted to tough anti-American rhetoric,accusing opposition demonstrators of being paid by the US. Putin’s recent newspaper articles also suggest that he sees US hegemony as a bigger problem than the rise of Chinese power. Those who have heard him talk in private say that Putin’s suspicion and mistrust of the US is genuine,rather than mere electoral rhetoric.

Any arguments over human rights are likely to cause further strains in the relationship. Within Russia,NGOs funded by Western foundations are facing new forms of harassment.

Another thorny issue is missile defence. Much of the Russian security establishment appears to believe that America’s plans for missile defense are aimed at Russia,though the Americans say that Iran is the rationale. Russian strategists worry that the American plans could require them to rethink the concept of “mutually-assured destruction,” although those plans,if fully implemented,could not stop Russia obliterating the US if it wished to do so. Medvedev has threatened to respond to the US scheme by deploying cruise missiles to Kaliningrad and building Russian missile defense systems.

Syria and Iran are causing great strains. Russian strategists view the turmoil in the Middle East almost exclusively in terms of a conflict between Iran on the one hand,and Saudi Arabia and the US on the other. Syria is not only Iran’s ally but also Russia’s best friend in the region.

Many Russians believe that geopolitics will drive the US to use force against not only Iran but also Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. They believe that only ill will come of the Arab Spring and predict that many countries will end up with extreme Islamist regimes backed by Saudi Arabia.

Putin is ardently opposed to any kind of humanitarian intervention in Syria. This position is based partly on principle,notably a strong attachment to absolute state sovereignty. His belief that the West abused the terms of Resolution 1973 to justify striking Libya has reinforced his hostility to Western intervention elsewhere. The position is based partly on realpolitik: Syria buys a lot of Russian arms,provides Russia with a naval base and helps to prevent US-Saudi dominance in the Middle East.

Afghanistan,by contrast,has fostered cooperation between Washington and Moscow. Russia views the US presence in the country as a bulwark against the spread of Islamist fundamentalism,and they work together on counter-narcotics operations. But many Russians believe that when US troops depart in 2014,the Americans will have fewer reasons to collaborate with Moscow.

Still,both the next US president and Putin are likely to see good reasons to stop the US-Russia relationship turning hostile. The US needs Russia’s help in the UN Security Council in tackling Iran and other problems in the Middle East. And Putin knows that stormy relations with the West could hold back the modernisation of the Russian economy.

But it won’t be the reset,or the cordiality,that Obama had with Medvedev.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform

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