A pugnacious Putin, an assertive Russia

| April 12, 2012 | 0 Comments
Prior to Russia’s March election, Vladimir Putin wrote that “true democracy is not created overnight.”

Prior to Russia’s March election, Vladimir Putin wrote that “true democracy is not created overnight.”

Vladimir Putin began a Feb. 8 op-ed in The Washington Post with the following statement: “True democracy is not created overnight. Society must be ready for democratic mechanisms. The majority of the population must feel they are citizens and be ready to devote attention, time, and effort to participating in the process of government.” The previous Saturday, Feb. 4, tens of thousands of Russians did precisely that, braving sub-zero temperatures to participate in the largest demonstrations in the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities since 1991, to protest Putin’s candidacy in the presidential election scheduled for March 4. The vast majority of the demonstrators would have found laughable Putin’s assertion of interest in the promotion of democracy in Russia, as they hold him responsible for the erosion of progress toward democracy since he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president.
The result of the March 4 presidential election, a Putin victory with 64 percent of the vote, was a foregone conclusion. Even before ballots were cast and counted, a wide array of “administrative measures” had assured a Putin victory. The Kremlin-controlled Central Election Commission denied registration to potentially strong opposition candidates. Local officials throughout Russia impeded efforts by candidates to get their messages to Russian voters. National television, still the source of news for most Russians, remained under firm Kremlin control. While there are allegations of widespread manipulation of the voting, stuffing of ballot boxes was hardly necessary to achieve a Putin victory. As the observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded: “There was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner was never in doubt.” President Obama waited five days before congratulating Putin during a phone call, while a written State Department press release congratulated “the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper could find Mr. Putin more hard-edged and publicly assertive.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper could find Mr. Putin more hard-edged and publicly assertive.

There were some positives that emerged from the Russian presidential election. The most encouraging development was the presence of thousands of young people as voluntary observers at polling places throughout Russia. In many cases, these observers were able to conduct informal exit polling with which the official vote tallies by the Kremlin-controlled Central Election Commission can be compared. If, as seems likely, there will be significant disparities between exit polling and the official results, this will undoubtedly fuel more street protests, such as the March 5 Pushkin Square demonstration, which was broken up by security forces who arrested hundreds of demonstrators. Some observers have suggested that the public unrest preceding and following the election signals the eventual end of Putin’s dominance of the “vertical of power” — Kremlin control over Russia’s politics, economy, and international affairs. While predictions of the demise of “Putinism” may be premature, the young, educated, middle-class demonstrators in Russia’s streets have clearly signaled that they intend to press for a more modern, complex, and democratic political order in Russia. Putin may have to find ways to accommodate at least some of their demands.
Despite official Washington’s decidedly frosty response to the election, the United States and Canada will have no choice but to find a way to work with Russia. Vladimir Putin will decisively move back into the international role he played from 2000-2008, engaging the American president, Canadian prime minister and other world leaders with energy and skill. Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper will find Putin more hard-edged, more publicly assertive, and more personally decisive than Dmitry Medvedev, who always had to look over his shoulder at Prime Minister Putin. While the substance of Russian foreign policy is unlikely to change dramatically, the pugnacious charisma that once made Putin Time Magazine’s Man of the Year will be back on the world stage.
Putin will be playing perhaps the weakest hand of any competitor aspiring to a seat at the table of the “great powers.” Despite its still impressive nuclear arsenal, Russia’s military forces lack global reach and would find it very difficult to achieve decisive superiority in possible conflicts along Russia’s periphery, especially in Northeast Asia. While buoyed by current high energy prices, the Russian economy lacks diversification and will encounter new challenges in adapting to the requirements of Russia’s accession to the rules-based World Trade Organization. Immediately following the March 4 election, the international credit rating agency Fitch warned that Russia’s credit rating could be downgraded because of the extravagant promises of social spending Putin made during his campaign. Fitch noted that Russia’s fiscal “break-even point” for the price of its oil exports is $117/barrel, further underscoring Moscow’s dependence on unstable global oil prices. Russia faces a demographic crisis that could very likely result in a catastrophic collapse of the Russian population by mid-century. Yet, despite all these structural weaknesses, reports of the death of Russia as a great power are almost certainly exaggerated.
On the same day that Russians marched through their cities in anti-Putin demonstrations, the Russian Federation joined China in vetoing a UN Security Council Resolution, which would have called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt the military assault on his own people, and to begin a transition leading to his departure from power. Within a couple of days of the veto, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Damascus, welcomed by a boisterous pro-Assad demonstration, while Russian-built Syrian tanks relentlessly bombarded the city of Homs. If, as reported by Russian media, Lavrov used his meetings with Assad to urge that the Syrian dictator halt the violence and enter serious negotiations with the Syrian opposition, the Russian foreign minister clearly failed. The Russian veto, however, angered the U.S. and other Security Council Permanent Members (China excepted) and antagonized the Arab League, Turkey, and virtually every one of Syria’s neighbours, except Iran.

The Kremlin

The Kremlin

The veto and Lavrov’s visit sought to protect the last of Russia’s Cold War-era Middle East partners, once tied to Moscow by a network of arms sales arrangements, loose treaties of friendship and cooperation, and shared enmity toward the U.S. and Israel. Moscow and Beijing clearly do not want another Libya-style intervention in Syria, which could create more unwelcome precedents for Russian and China as they deal with restive regions such as the North Caucasus, Xinjiang and Tibet. Calls by Senator John McCain for a U.S.-led bombing campaign against Assad’s forces are likely to further elevate anxieties in Moscow and Beijing. With Putin’s re-election now secured, the U.S. is certain to take a fresh run at obtaining Russia’s support for a modified, but still tough, UN Security Council resolution on Syria. This will be an early test of Putin’s likely approach to handling relations with the United States on a wide variety of issues.
Just as with the Syrian crisis, international efforts to halt Iran’s drive to develop a nuclear weapons capability would stand a better chance of success with active Russian support and assistance. American efforts to restrain Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran go back to President Clinton’s negotiations with Boris Yeltsin in the mid-1990s. Then, as now, Russian interest in discouraging Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons is balanced by the financial interests of influential Russian enterprises in doing business of all kinds with Iran. It seems highly unlikely that Russia, and China as well, can be induced to support further rounds of sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council. It remains to be seen whether Russian firms, with the tacit acquiescence of the Kremlin, will seek to evade or challenge tightened U.S. and EU sanctions on Iran. If Russian state or private enterprises do seek to circumvent Western sanctions, they could well find themselves also caught up in the sanctions net, with obvious adverse implications for Moscow’s relations with Washington and Brussels. Russian interests would not be served by a nuclear-armed Iran or a confrontation in the Gulf that resulted in American or Israeli attacks in close proximity to Russia’s southern borders and its restive North Caucasus region. But if possible renewed negotiations between Tehran and the P-5+1 countries [UN Security Council permanent members U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russian Federation, China + Germany] fail, Moscow could face an unpredictable scenario to its south over which it would have little or no influence.
As a major energy supplier to Europe and Asia, Russia is both a potential partner and competitor with Canada and the United States. If Canada succeeds in building its proposed oil pipeline to the Pacific, it will eventually find itself in a high-stakes competition with Russia, and other potential suppliers, in the Chinese market. For two decades, Russia and China have been engaged in near continuous negotiations on the terms of pipeline construction and delivery of Russian natural gas to China. Canada’s entry into the East Asian energy sweepstakes is likely to be viewed by Beijing as yet another source of leverage useful with other potential suppliers, including Russia. Competition for Arctic energy resources will also involve Canada and the United States with Russia. Given its geographic position in the Far North, it is difficult to envisage a cooperative regime for Arctic security and safe and effective development of Arctic energy without a network of bilateral and multilateral arrangements including Russia.
During one of the coldest European winters on record, Russia did not resort to a cut-off of gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine, despite ongoing disputes over the gas deal reached in 2009 between Putin and then Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. This relative period of stability in Russian gas exports via pipelines through Ukraine and Belarus is the result of the political ascendency of a Ukrainian government under President Viktor Yanukovych more inclined toward Russian interests than its predecessors under the former Western-oriented President Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Although Yanukovych’s government is faltering due to economic mismanagement and political miscalculations, he has sought concessions from Moscow on pricing of Russian gas to Ukraine, transit fees for Russian gas to Europe, and the amount of Russian gas that Ukraine is obliged to purchase. While these negotiations remain bogged down, a near-term breakdown and face-off over gas deliveries to Ukraine and Europe does not appear to be imminent. It remains to be seen whether the EU and Ukraine will take advantage of this period of relative stability of gas deliveries to begin to reduce their long-term dependence on Russian gas or to complete proposed free-trade and visa-free agreements between Brussels and Kiev.
With Putin’s return to the Russian presidency and the U.S. facing presidential elections in 2012, future prospects for the Obama’s Administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia seem uncertain. Following the high-water mark of ratification of the U.S.-Russia New Start Treaty in 2010, the “reset” appears to have fallen on hard times, in part due to serious disagreements on how to deal with Syria and Iran. Russia and the U.S. did achieve success in clearing the last hurdles for Russian accession to the World Trade Organization, approved Dec. 16, 2011 at the WTO Ministerial. Russian ratification of the deal seems certain, thus meeting the end-of-2011 deadline set by Washington and Moscow for completing Russia’s 18-year WTO accession marathon. However, Washington must seek a congressional vote on repeal of the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment and extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Russia. Prospects for congressional approve of PNTR for Russia were already tenuous at best and will not be helped by the outcome and conduct of the Russian presidential election.
The Obama Administration is reportedly considering further reductions in American-deployed strategic nuclear warheads below the level of 1,550 prescribed by the New Start Treaty, which went into effect in 2011. Some options reportedly under consideration would reduce the number of U.S. strategic nuclear warheads to 300-400, the number deployed in the 1950s. While the Obama Administration would prefer to achieve further warhead reductions through negotiations with Russia, prospects for agreement on new nuclear arms reductions appear dim until presidential politics are sorted out in the United States. Even then, it is difficult to see how warhead levels could be further substantially reduced without restructuring of forces on both sides and without accounting for the current and possible future nuclear forces of other states, including China. On the U.S. side, any new arms reduction treaty with Russia would face the daunting requirement for ratification by a two-thirds majority in the Senate, in the face of virtually certain strong opposition from Republican senators. The interest of both the U.S. and Russia in a follow-on Start agreement is driven by the escalating costs of maintaining their nuclear arsenals and budget constraints in both countries. But negotiations could be complicated by Russian opposition to the deployment of American ballistic missile defense systems in Europe and the Middle East.
There remain other areas of U.S.-Russian collaboration, notably in space, as, for the next several years, the only means for U.S. astronauts to get to the international space station is aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. There are also bilateral irritants from the frosty reception in the Kremlin-controlled Russian press of the new American Ambassador Michael McFaul to a threatened cutoff of American adoptions of Russian children. Recent bitter criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Russia press is yet another indication of the current strained state of U.S.-Russia relations. While relations with Russia have not yet figured prominently in the U.S. presidential election, this could change as Putin takes office and begins to bring a tougher tone to Russian foreign policy. Whoever takes the oath as U.S. President in January 2013 will find his in-basket full of prickly issues requiring engagement with Vladimir Putin.

Ambassador Larry C. Napper (ret’d) is director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, George Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.

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