Putin the Peacemaker?

Russia's once and future president, Vladimir Putin, likes to talk tough. But what he really wants is to be America's partner -- and Washington isn't listening.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Never one to mince words, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has laid down his views on national security policy. Like all his other articles in the Russian press of late — articles that have to substitute for the absent presidential debates — his recent piece in the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta (and excerpted on Foreign was, above all, a campaign statement. Like any leader facing an election (and one need only to look to the U.S. Republican presidential nominees for confirmation), he sought to portray himself as a staunch patriot ready to defend his country’s national interest. Appearing on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day, his long piece also made a pitch for the votes of military members and workers in the defense industry. "There is always a temptation to solve one’s problems at somebody else’s expense," Putin wrote. But, he continued, "We should not tempt anyone by our weakness." Yet, Putin’s article is more than electoral rhetoric; it is a plan that is already being implemented. The problem with it is that it rests on the pessimistic conclusion that, in the 21st century, Russia’s national security will need to be protected, above all, from the United States.

There is no question that, in today’s Russia, official anti-Americanism serves a useful domestic purpose. It seeks to discredit not just a few Russian liberals but the much more numerous anti-government protesters by portraying them as America’s fifth column. There is no doubt either that the view of the United States as Russia’s adversary reflects the legacy of the Cold War and, perhaps even more than that, the disappointment that followed the end of the 40-year confrontation, when Russia, having withdrawn its forces from a score of countries and slashed its military equipment purchases by 68 times in just one year (1992), turned itself into an international supplicant, living from one International Monetary Fund tranche to another. But there is also the fact that, at the beginning of each post-Soviet Russian presidency, the Kremlin leader reached out to his counterpart at the White House in an effort to strike an alliance with the United States, only to be brushed off.

Boris Yeltsin, in 1992, sought a formal alliance with Washington, only to be told, by George H.W. Bush, that with the Cold War over there was no need for new alliances anymore. When, however, the existing alliance, NATO, started to expand eastward, under Bill Clinton, Russia was only told not to worry. Rhetorically, the door was left open for Russia, but in reality Moscow’s accession was never seriously considered. No wonder that Yeltsin’s parting message to Clinton, in late 1999, was "never to forget, not for a minute," that Russia was still a nuclear superpower.

It is little mentioned these days that when Putin became president in 2000, he was determined to do what had eluded Yeltsin. Privately but very directly, he aspired to Russia’s membership in NATO — not to destroy it from the inside, as many readily suspected, but to cement the relationship with the United States, whose primacy Putin then was prepared to implicitly recognize. In the crucial first stage of the Afghanistan operation, Russia de facto became an ally of the United States. In an effort to build a strong security relationship with Washington, Putin chose not to respond to George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that Moscow had always regarded as a bedrock of strategic stability, and he tolerated a U.S. military presence in the former Soviet Central Asia and Georgia. From mid-2002, however, the Bush White House became focused on Iraq, and Russia was left lying by the wayside. Putin gave vent to his pent-up frustration five years later in his famous Munich speech in which he denounced the United States, whose power refused to "recognize any borders in this world."

As he was picking up the pieces from the 2008 Georgia war, President Dmitry Medvedev, still overseen by Putin (now the prime minister), was positive, but initially cautious, in his response to Barack Obama’s reset of the U.S. policy toward Russia. By the fall of 2009, however, he became very engaged, and by the time of the NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon a year later, Medvedev was positively enthusiastic about the U.S. relationship. The New START treaty was not enough. Medvedev started talking about missile defense cooperation in Europe as a means of placing the entire Euro-Atlantic area within a common security and defense perimeter. The Russian president’s enthusiasm was short-lived. Following the failure in May 2011 to reach even a basic agreement on principles of cooperation, he issued a statement last November warning darkly about Russia’s countermeasures against future U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe.

True, each Russian attempt at engaging the United States has been awkward in its own way. In 1992, there was no common enemy around which to justify forming a U.S.-Russia alliance. Deng Xiaoping’s China, busy with its four modernizations, did not replace the Soviet Union as a global challenger to the United States. In 2001, had Russia been admitted to NATO, the alliance would have turned into something like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. A few years later, the United States and Russia narrowly escaped a head-on collision in the Georgia war. In 2011, a joint missile defense in Europe would have either de facto placed Russian assets under U.S./NATO authority or, more likely, made the system totally dysfunctional. But the issue here is not how the United States responded to specific Russian ideas, but rather that Washington wasn’t really interested in engaging Moscow strategically at all.

The reset, as the name itself suggests, is essentially a means to do away with policy glitches; it does not equal a policy, much less a long-term strategy. The U.S. rationale for having the reset in the first place had little or nothing to do with Russia. Instead, it allowed the United States to acquire Russia’s logistical cooperation on the transit routes leading to Afghanistan, revive a modicum of nuclear arms control, and finalize Russia’s 18-year quest to join the World Trade Organization. Beyond these relatively low-hanging fruits there was a void.

Putin’s formal return to the Kremlin is just days away. And with his tough campaign rhetoric and military modernization plans, on the one hand, and, on the other, the continuing protests in Russia against the existing political system, which challenge Putin’s own legitimacy, the environment is even less propitious for an effort to improve strategic relations between Washington and Moscow. The more interesting issue is that, in the current U.S. foreign-policy debate, Russia has become a marginal quantity. A discussion of U.S. policy toward China can go on for hours without ever mentioning Russia; the Sturm und Drang over Iran’s nuclear weapons program barely takes account of how U.S. moves might be perceived in Moscow; and though they loudly decry it with reference to Syria, hardly anyone in Washington loses sleep over the long-term implications of the ever-closer Sino-Russian alignment at the U.N. Security Council.

The view of Russia as a power in permanent and unstoppable decline may be right, or it may not. If anything, Moscow should be even more interested in finding realistic ways to improve its relations with Washington. Russia’s modernization agenda risks being scuttled in the event of a serious deterioration of its relations with the United States. What is striking, however, is that Washington, while focused intently on particular global issues — from promoting the fledgling democracies of the Arab Spring to handing off Afghanistan to pivoting toward Asia — thinks it can afford having no general strategic vision of relations with a country that, despite all its weaknesses and failings, can make a huge difference in the emerging global balance. Conventional wisdom in Washington declares that if there is no problem, there is no policy. This may have been just fine in the years of clear U.S. dominance in the world. It is hardly affordable now.

Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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