Dealing with a Resurgent Russia

By: Greg C. Reeson

On Sunday, March 2, Russian voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly elected First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to succeed Vladimir Putin as president of Russia. Of course, the election was a farce by western standards. Medvedev was handpicked for the presidency by Putin, faced no substantive opposition, and benefited from state support that essentially guaranteed he would defeat the three pro-Kremlin candidates opposing him. There were no debates, state-controlled media promoted Medvedev, government restrictions prevented meaningful international observation, and charges of electoral fraud were rampant before, during, and after the polling took place.

But now that the election is over, the question remains: who will run Russia after Medvedev’s inauguration on May 7, and what course will Russia pursue?

Shortly after being selected for the presidency by Putin, Medvedev indicated that he would return the favor and name his predecessor Russia’s prime minister, the number two spot in the Russian government. Putin will, of course, accept the posting, and will use the time between now and May to shift real power from the president to the prime minister. No one inside or outside of Russia really expects Putin to accept a diminished role and play second fiddle to the newly elected president.

With Putin still calling the shots, Russia will likely maintain its current path in both domestic and foreign affairs. That path under Putin has seen a steady withdrawal from the modest democratic gains that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the use of energy as a weapon, an increasingly advanced and aggressive military, and an anti-western (really, anti-American) approach to international relations.

On the democratic front, Putin has steadily increased state control of the political process, the economy, the media, and the Russian legal system. In Russia, once again, the state rules the day, while the citizen takes a back seat. Under Putin, Russia has used energy resources to coerce former Soviet states and to send messages to Europe about Russia’s ability to influence world events. The use of energy as a weapon most recently occurred just this week, with Russia cutting natural gas supplies to Ukraine twice in the past few days. While Russia claims the cuts are for financial reasons, it is more likely that Russia is attempting to keep Ukraine in check in response to repeated Ukrainian overtures to NATO and Europe.

Militarily, Russia has pursued more advanced war fighting equipment and weapons platforms and has pushed hard to extend the reach of the Russian military, resuming the Cold War practice of long-range bomber flights into areas controlled by the west for the last two decades. Internationally, Putin’s Russia has sided with Serbia in opposition to Kosovo’s independence, adamantly opposed U.S. ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and thwarted western efforts at the United Nations to impose meaningful sanctions against a defiant Iran determined to continue its suspect nuclear program.

Nothing Russia has done, or not done, will change with Medvedev’s assumption of the presidency. That is because everything Russia has done, or not done, has been in pursuit of a singular national goal: the return of Russia to great power status. And with the United States bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasingly worried about a growing Chinese military capability, the path is clear for Russia to continue its march toward regaining the power, prestige, and influence it once enjoyed.

All of this is fine with the Russian people, who generally support Putin and his policies. Since oil prices began their steady climb about four years ago, the Russian people have experienced greater access to everyday goods, an improved quality of life, and a renewed sense of national pride led by Putin. The status quo of the past few years has been good for the Russians, and neither they, nor Putin and Medvedev, are likely to change course anytime soon.

So what is the United States to do? To begin, we have to understand that Russia under Vladimir Putin is not going to be our ally or our friend, at least not in the traditional sense. Russia under Vladimir Putin will more often than not be an adversary that increasingly looks like the former Soviet Union. We will share common concerns, such as transnational terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but we will also have significant differences of opinion about such matters as independence for certain breakaway provinces and control over traditional spheres of influence.

Recognizing that Russia is not a democratic nation interested in working with the United States for a more stable, peaceful world, but is in fact an increasingly authoritarian state driven by a desire for international power and stature will allow us to formulate a strategy that seeks to limit Russian influence while advancing our national interests. Russia is highly dependent on the energy market, and vulnerabilities which can be exploited do exist. Russia has influence with Iran and with several former Soviet republics, and is a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council. In other words, there is room to maneuver and negotiate.

We must recognize Russia’s strengths and weaknesses, and our own capabilities and limits, and develop a way forward that allows us to deal with an increasingly powerful Russia. The time to formulate that strategy is now, even while we are occupied with the war on terror and a rising China, and before we find ourselves facing a replenished Russian military advancing Soviet-style interests in critical areas around the world.

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