Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s March 4 victory in Russia’s predictably flawed presidential election—and the Obama administration’s so-far limited response—demonstrate critical shortcomings in the execution of the president’s reset policy. Early missteps by the administration have exacerbated difficult dilemmas inherent in efforts to work with today’s Russia and could ultimately undermine important U.S. national interests.
The Obama administration’s biggest strategic mistake was in taking outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev far too seriously. Administration officials would likely argue that the United States had little choice, in that Medvedev was Russia’s president and therefore Mr. Obama’s formal partner. However, while this is an argument for meeting Medvedev, which was indeed necessary, it did not require heavy emphasis on the Obama-Medvedev connection based on an apparent but questionable assessment that Medvedev was more committed to political reform than Putin and had a good chance at reelection.
In fact, Medvedev’s annual addresses to Russia’s parliament differed little in substance or tone from Putin’s during his first two presidential terms. Broadly speaking, the two men pursued similar domestic policies; moreover, both “modernization” and “innovation”—usually credited to Medvedev as signs of his more liberal thinking—actually originated with Putin. More important than speeches, Medvedev’s record in office demonstrated that he was more willing than Putin to meet with liberal opposition figures and took a gentler tone in addressing them publicly, but it provides little evidence of genuine political liberalism. At the same time, notwithstanding Medvedev’s declarations and campaigns, Russia’s corruption worsened, which strengthened one of the greatest practical obstacles to greater rule of law and democracy. And Medvedev did nothing to prepare the ground for a truly competitive presidential election. Nothing suggests that he would have run the election campaign any differently from Putin had he been the United Russia candidate.
In foreign policy, likewise, Medvedev distinguished himself from Putin primarily in tone rather than substance. This may have made him an easier interlocutor on some issues and may even have contributed to agreement in some areas, but it does not appear to have produced major accomplishments. To be more specific, the New START Treaty is valuable but not a major accomplishment, Medvedev’s decree banning S-300 sales to Iran formalized something Russia was already doing and could be rapidly reversed, and Moscow’s cooperation on Afghanistan could not occur without Putin’s active consent. On the one foreign-policy issue where the two men publicly differed—Russia’s decision to abstain in voting on the UN Security Council resolution on Libya—Medvedev eventually came around to Putin’s view after the NATO intervention there.
Considering that President Obama is not known for warm personal relationships with foreign leaders and the mistakes of the Clinton administration in dealing with Boris Yeltsin, it is ironic that the White House would overpersonalize its approach to Medvedev (whether warm or not). The administration’s fundamental mistake appears to have been in focusing on Medvedev rather than the political space that Medvedev was creating through his occasional symbolic differences with Putin. This seems to have produced what was clearly a risky bet on Medvedev that the administration need not have placed when Putin was obviously positioned to determine whether he or his protégé-turned-successor would be the next presidential candidate of the ruling elite. Like the Clinton administration, the Obama team appears to have overestimated America’s capability to influence Russia’s political evolution. The administration should have known that it was unlikely to have an alternative to dealing with Putin.
The Obama administration has been struggling with the costs of its excessive focus on Medvedev since Mr. Obama’s brief and frosty meeting with Putin during his first visit to Moscow. While the administration eventually attempted to correct its course, the early damage to the Obama-Putin relationship has limited the administration’s ability to take a harder line on the election now for fear of derailing the reset, which Obama claims as a major foreign-policy success. Thus, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was initially critical of Russia’s December 4 parliamentary election—and received a sharp response from Moscow—U.S. comments on the presidential election have so far been limited to a statement from the State Department spokesperson. This inevitably makes the administration increasingly (and justifiably) vulnerable to criticism inside the United States.
The Obama administration’s wishful thinking about Medvedev has ultimately deepened the fundamental dilemma of U.S.-Russian relations: how to balance cooperation to advance important American interests on issues like Afghanistan and Iran against concern over Russia’s undemocratic governance. As a result, the administration has essentially undermined the sustainability of its own policy course, whether or not Mr. Obama is himself reelected. And it is hard to see Putin’s reelection as anything but a setback for the reset.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.