Washington had four years with the young, agreeable Dmitri Medvedev as its principal Russian interlocutor. But last week’s election confirmed that soon U.S. diplomats will once again be dealing directly with Vladimir Putin. What does Putin’s return mean for Russian foreign policy, and how should Washington adjust its own approach now that Putin, rather than Medvedev, will be sitting across the table?
Despite some nasty rhetoric directed at the United States during the campaign and the tensions that overtook U.S.-Russian relations at the end of Putin’s first stint in the Kremlin, Washington has an opportunity to maintain good, mutually beneficial relations with Moscow during Putin’s second act. The key will be developing an agenda that focuses on shared interests and seeks to move beyond the current deadlock over issues such as missile defense and Russia’s domestic politics. With the United States accelerating the drawdown of its forces from Afghanistan ahead of 2014, focusing on regional security in Afghanistan and central Asia would be a good place to start.
In Putin’s Shoes
Despite some fairly ferocious anti-American rhetoric during the preelection campaign, Putin remains someone with whom Washington can do business. Though Putin avoided day-to-day involvement in foreign policy over the past four years, his role as the stronger partner in Russia’s tandem government meant that Medvedev could rarely make decisions at odds with Putin’s preferences. For instance, the U.S.-Russia “reset,” proclaimed by presidents Medvedev and Obama in early 2009, could not have come about without Putin’s assent. Other key decisions also required the prime minister’s approval, including the tightening of sanctions on Iran at the UN in June 2010 and Russia’s decision to permit the transit of cargo across its territory via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of supply routes to Afghanistan that allows the United States to avoid Pakistan.
The harshness of Putin’s preelection rhetoric should not obscure his longstanding recognition that good relations with the United States are in Russia’s national interest, as long as Washington is prepared to treat Moscow as an equal partner—something Washington, in Putin’s view, has often failed to do. In a long article published in Moskovskie Novosti on February 27, Putin reiterated that “we are prepared to make great strides in our relations with the U.S. to achieve a qualitative breakthrough, but on the condition that the Americans are guided by the principles of equal and mutually respectful partnership.”
Western analysis of Putin’s Moskovskie Novosti piece has focused on its criticism of the United States, which Putin accused of “undermining our security and upsetting global stability”—for instance by intervening militarily in Libya and threatening to do the same in Syria and Iran. Putin has long chafed at what he views as the West’s lack of respect for Russia’s interests and standing as a major power. In this telling, Moscow has made significant concessions over the past twelve years: accepting U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the Baltic states’ inclusion in NATO, tolerating U.S. military deployments in central Asia, and sacrificing Russian financial and strategic interests in Iran in pursuit of a united front against Tehran’s nuclear program. Yet Washington continues to demand more while brushing aside Moscow’s own interests, which require respect for the supremacy of the UN Security Council on issues of war and peace, the preservation of strategic stability in the nuclear field and, above all, respect for Russia’s leading role inside the former Soviet Union.
Putin’s article and his preelection statements offer the United States a choice: cooperation based on mutual respect or zero-sum competition. Faced with an increasingly volatile Middle East, a weakened European Union and the challenges of executing a strategic pivot to Asia, the United States needs generally productive relations with Russia—which in turn means pursuing precisely the kind of cooperation Putin suggests.
A New Agenda
One of the biggest problems is the lack of a positive agenda for cooperation. The big agenda items of the past few years have largely been achieved: the New START agreement, tightened UN sanctions on Iran, Russia’s WTO admission, reduced competition in the post-Soviet region. Greater economic cooperation is in both countries’ interests. But apart from convincing Congress to grant Russia permanent normal-trade relations status, new economic arrangements are long-term process. Greater transparency leading to direct cooperation on missile defense, which has been the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts to build a more collaborative security relationship, appears stuck.
Where Washington and Moscow have a real need to collaborate in the shorter term is Afghanistan and its central-Asian neighborhood. While Moscow was long wary of Washington’s courtship of the central-Asian governments in connection with the U.S. deployment to Afghanistan, Putin and other Russian leaders have realized that the fight against the Taliban—of which the U.S. role in central Asia is a piece—helps shield Russia from the spread of radicalism and criminality. Along with several of its neighbors, Russia is a critical partner in the NDN. After long opposing the U.S. presence in the region, Russia is now calling on the United States to reconsider its 2014 deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is unlikely to extend the deadline, but it should begin an intensive dialogue with the Russians about regional security during and after the withdrawal. Moscow has already agreed to establish a transit hub inside Russia (in Ulyanovsk) for use during the withdrawal. Going forward, Russia’s biggest concerns will center on stemming the flow of Afghan narcotics into Russia and ensuring the security of the secular regimes in central Asia. The United States also has an interest in preventing central Asia from becoming a source of radicalism and instability, but with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be less able to shape events. Precisely for that reason, Washington ought to work with Moscow to develop a framework for regional security after 2014. Areas to emphasize include border security, training and supplying of security forces, counternarcotics and regional economic development, where Russia should have a strong role. Given the absence of a real, positive agenda for U.S.-Russian cooperation, focusing on central-Asian security offers an opportunity to move beyond counterproductive standoffs over missile defense and the Middle East that have dominated bilateral relations for too long.
U.S. policy makers should be clear-eyed about cooperation with Putin’s Russia. Cooperation will not be based on shared values, but on the pursuit of common interests where they exist, coupled with frank disagreement elsewhere—including on Russia’s internal development. Putin’s reelection was clearly flawed, but he can nevertheless plausibly claim to have the support of a majority of Russians, even if his supporters number somewhat less than the 63.6 percent of votes he officially received. The relatively small size of the post-election protests only serves to emphasize that, contrary to many predictions in the West, Putin’s hold on power remains secure, at least for now. That could change, of course, and in unpredictable ways. For that reason, Washington should focus specifically on areas like central-Asian security, where cooperation will be in Moscow’s interest regardless of domestic developments in Russia.
U.S. officials should maintain contacts with the opposition and openly acknowledge the flaws in Russia’s electoral process. But the United States needs to work with the Russian government it has, not the one it would like to have. That’s why U.S.-Russian relations require a shared agenda for cooperation, regardless of who is sitting across the table.
Jeffrey Mankoff is an adjunct fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City. He was a 2010–2011 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow based in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.