Resetting the Russian Reset in 2012

Washington-Moscow relations will change dramatically in 2012. The relationship's future is largely in Putin's hands.

The future of the U.S.-Russia reset and of the limited but nonetheless valuable cooperation that has emerged between Moscow and Washington on Iran and Afghanistan depends a great deal on what happens in the 2012 elections—in both the United States and Russia. The jury is still out as to whether the personal friendship between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev has fostered an actual institutional relationship between the two powers. Unlike Moscow’s relationships with other major democracies such as India and Germany—where changes in government did not disrupt bilateral relations—it is not clear that if President Obama is replaced come January 2013, his Republican successor would remain committed to the reset. And even if Obama returns to the White House for a second term, he has no strong tie to Vladimir Putin, the prime minister who appears to be a shoo-in for a third term as president of Russia. Indeed, relations between Putin and Obama have been downright frosty ever since Obama’s first visit to Moscow, where he attempted to define Putin as the product of the “bad old past” while hailing Medvedev as the “wave of the future.”

Indeed, one can argue that a compelling reason why Putin stepped down as president in 2008—rather than using his pliant supermajority in the Duma to amend the constitution to permit a third consecutive presidential term—was the realization that Russia needed a new “face” in the Kremlin to rebuild relations with the United States and to strengthen Russia’s partnerships with key European states, notably France and Germany. Medvedev’s persona as “liberal modernizer” helped to forge political and personal connections with Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Obama in the United States. It also helped that Obama was willing to invest some of his political capital in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Obama pushed for ratification of the New START treaty. He also backed a new, expanded presidential commission that has continued to function despite some sharp criticism—especially of the working group co-chaired by presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and outgoing senior National Security Council director Michael McFaul, over continued concerns about Russia’s human rights record.

A key indicator as to what will happen to the U.S.-Russia relationship, therefore, will be the political fate of Medvedev. At the United Russia conference where Putin accepted the nod to retake the presidential chair, he indicated that the “tandem” would continue, albeit in different form, with Medvedev becoming prime minister. But what remains to be seen is, first, whether Medvedev ends up as prime minister at all (with some speculation that, in fact, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin might get the nod to form a new government after the 2012 presidential elections) and, second, whether Medvedev would inherit all of the expanded powers that were delegated to the premiership when Putin took that position. In particular, what remains undecided is whether the prime minister will continue to retain his own autonomous policy administration, be able to supervise some aspects of foreign and defense policy, and have a “policy veto.”

One of the key features of the 2008-2012 “tandem” between president Medvedev and prime minister Putin was the emergence of a “dual-key” system where both had to sign off on any key decisions. This had the added benefit of ensuring that all major Kremlin factions could be well represented in executive decisions because of the reality of two power centers, one grouped around the presidential administration, the other based out of the “White House,” the traditional seat of the prime minister. It meant that more voices calling for liberalization and modernization of the Russian economy and political system as well as those in support of improved relations with the West could find a platform for expressing these views.

Because of the opaque and disjointed nature of Russian policy making, the various intergovernmental working groups that have been set up to handle the entire political and economic spectrum of key bilateral relationships have acquired special importance. It is through these bodies that Russian policy acquires any degree of coherence. So the question, therefore, is what happens to “Medvedev’s people” in a Putin presidency? If many of the conditions of the tandem are preserved, with Medvedev remaining a partner (albeit a junior one) rather than a simple subordinate, then some of the momentum that has been achieved over the last several years might be maintained.

Ever since Boris Yeltsin wrote out the post of vice president in the 1993 Russian constitution, there hasn’t been a clear “number two” in the Russian system. Given the dynamics of the tandem, Putin was never going to be the clear subordinate to Medvedev. But if Putin’s return in 2012 represents an effort to “reboot” the Russian political system, he has the opportunity, if he keeps Medvedev, to reshape the prime ministerial position away from being simply the “day-to-day” operator of the Russian government in favor of a true deputy.

If this happens, then some of the gains of the last several years could be preserved. Indeed, if Medvedev does become a powerful prime minister, the presidential commission he created with Obama could be transformed into a body co-chaired by the premier, leaving Medvedev as the primary interlocutor with Washington.

The conventional wisdom has always said that Putin’s return to the Kremlin would be a setback to the Obama administration. But if Medvedev ends up as the confirmed and empowered deputy, then that could represent a critical silver lining.