Some Russian pundits suggest this will all come to a head with Medvedev and Putin running against one another for president in 2012. This seems unlikely. Russian politics have so far been decided before rather than during its elections and this probably will not change in the next three years. There is also no clear institutional base for Medvedev in an electoral competition against Putin. Putin chairs the United Russia party, and among the other parties in the Duma, only Just Russia could conceivably be an appropriate home for Medvedev. But Just Russia remains loyal to Putin and is both fairly weak and less supportive than United Russia of the Western-style reforms that Medvedev's camp seems to want. Thus, for Medvedev to build an institutional base, he would more likely have to be a divider rather than a uniter, splitting apart Russia's elite, its government and the United Russia party-something many will resist and many others will fear. The steady approach of 2012 and the preelection decisions it will force only fuel the tension in the Medvedev-Putin relationship-and add to Russia's uncertainty. And while Putin remains dominant thus far, his power has never been seriously challenged.
POLITICAL AND economic liberalization in Russia would advance American interests and improve U.S.-Russian cooperation. However, real political conflict or a stalemate in Russia will likely be a problem for the United States as well. This is not an argument for stability for the sake of convenience in U.S. policy; it is simply a statement of fact. Political competition in Russia creates pressures to take harder lines in defining Moscow's positions and goals and can even lead to dangerous Russian actions. U.S. officials, members of Congress and others will take note of these attitudes or actions and react. At the same time, domestic uncertainty in Russia only increases the difficulty that outsiders have in understanding its government decision making and predicting Moscow's conduct-which in turn undermines American policy.
This situation means that taking sides in Russia's internal political debates could come at a great cost. This is a central lesson of the 1990s, when American support for Boris Yeltsin-who many thought was a pro-Western democrat despite early signs to the contrary-in fact persuaded most Russians that Washington was more interested in ensuring that Moscow's leaders remained weak and compliant than in helping the country's citizens or preserving democracy.
Another reason to avoid taking sides is the murky relationship between domestic reforms and foreign policy in Russia. Russia's past is replete with rulers who supported both ambitious internal reforms and aggressive foreign policies, ranging from Czar Alexander II (who freed the serfs but pursued wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus) to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who led the post-Stalin thaw but provoked the Cuban missile crisis). It also includes a few pragmatic autocrats like Alexander III, who reversed many of his father Alexander II's reforms but was careful to avoid reckless foreign pursuits.
With all the uncertainty about Russia, it may be helpful to focus on what the country is not. First and foremost, Russia is not a country governed by a messianic ideology and is neither intrinsically antidemocratic nor anti-Western. Secondly, however, Russia is not a nation of altruistic do-gooders upon whose support the United States can rely when its interests and priorities differ from Washington's. Here it is useful to recall Churchill's entire quote: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
Russia's domestic situation will be an obstacle to cooperation in some areas, but not in others. For example, Russia does not particularly seem to care how its foreign partners run their countries. Moscow has worked quite successfully with democracies such as Germany and Italy, demonstrating that Russia does not have a problem with democratic governments as such. In fact, Russia's leaders seem to have gotten along much better with German Chancellor Angela Merkel than Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, with whom they have frequent public spats. Conversely, contrary to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's assertions, Russia's problem with Georgia is not its democracy but its hostile conduct. When Saakashvili acted on his sometimes-authoritarian instincts in Georgia, he received no credit for it in Moscow.
Similarly, Russia's internal politics will not prevent its leaders from cooperating pragmatically with the United States on issues like arms control and nonproliferation when they view such efforts as promoting their interests. Nor will it prohibit Russia from becoming an American partner on some issues at some times, or from viewing partnership with the United States as sufficiently serving its national interests to influence other calculations.
Ultimately, of course, Russia's domestic practices present the greatest obstacles to Russia itself, which severely limits foreign investment, modernization and the country's integration into the international system without making real changes. This will in turn affect not only Moscow's hard power but also its soft power. So while Vice President Joseph Biden's recent blunt assessment of Russia's decline may have been exceedingly undiplomatic-and mistaken in its conclusion that Moscow would have no choice but to cooperate with Washington-it was not fundamentally incorrect if Russia does not alter its course. While Medvedev has promised to do this, he admits that little has happened even in the wake of Russia's dismal performance in the global financial crisis.
Russia has been a difficult interlocutor since its independence nearly two decades ago and is unlikely to become an easier one anytime soon. But for all of its faults-and they are many-Russia is not inherently an American foe. Russia's leaders may be ruthless, but they do not need foreign enemies. With care and determination, the United States can work with Moscow to advance important national interests.
Dimitri K. Simes is the president of the Nixon Center. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center.Image: Essay Types: Essay