The Long Shadow of Vladimir Putin

Obama and Medvedev have been busy with their reset. Uncertainty about who really calls the shots may render it all meaningless.

Although President Dmitry Medvedev is still portrayed in Western circles as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s placeholder, fettered in his steps at the will of his “patron,” the accomplishments in the U.S.-Russian relationship this year look all too impressive.

Foremost, Medvedev allayed Western concerns regarding Moscow’s ties with Tehran. Russia joined the Western consortium and voted in the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Three months later, Medvedev put restrictions on the export of S-300 missile systems to Iran—a deal that had long been a source of great anxiety in the West. Notwithstanding fairly strong skepticism inside Russia, Medvedev also signed the New START treaty with President Obama, which puts additional limits on missiles and delivery vehicles and sets a path for future engagement—especially in the realm of tactical nuclear weapons, a much-sought-after goal in the White House.

Under Medvedev’s presidency, Russia has given real support to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan by allowing military transit through its territory. The updated agreement, reached during the Russia-NATO summit in November, will, according to NATO officials, expand existing transit routes and enable NATO to move nonlethal supplies from Europe to Afghanistan over land. In addition, Medvedev made a statement (presumably not cheered on in Russia, whose many bureaucrats still view NATO as a rival or even a threat) that Russia would cooperate with NATO on building antimissile networks.

Finally, Medvedev has tempered Western fears of Russia as an aggressor on the world stage. Its partners no longer seem apprehensive that at the drop of a hat Moscow may proffer up an abrupt statement or an inflexible decision that throws the relationship into turmoil. Western leaders have become less preoccupied with Russia and mutual suspicion has abated.

How long will this thawing last?

Michael McFaul, senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, recently told the Carnegie Endowment that the White House has attempted to assure Moscow that it’s of common interest to look for “win-win solutions” instead of thinking of everything as “a zero-sum game.” But domestic political limitations may well get in the way.

President Obama, for his part, now faces strong opposition in Congress and a dissatisfied political base. President Medvedev, on the other hand, acts as the leader of a state but not as the leader of a nation; Prime Minister Putin always looms.

The question is about not only the political weight wielded by Medvedev and Putin, but the legal division of powers between the Kremlin and the government, in which the latter wields considerable authority. For every step Medvedev has made, should Putin wish to pull back on the reins he likely has the power to do so.

The situation is only complicated by the fact that presidential elections in Russia are scheduled for spring 2012, and there is no telling if Medvedev will seek a second term or yield his place back to Putin. Certainly the establishment does not anticipate that Putin is ready to abandon his tenure in power or even to consign himself to remain the second voice in Russian politics for the next six years.

All these ambiguities in the Russian political process may not matter to the international community, save for one: uncertainty constrains. Russian bureaucrats, sensitive to the will of the leadership, are unlikely to make decisions if they do not know who will be in charge.

An unfortunate outcome may be that all these good political declarations will result in little practical cooperation, and the basis of the Russian-Western relationship will remain vulnerable.

 

(Image by Strassengalerie)