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Two decades after Cold War, crosscurrents complicate U.S.-Russia relations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Hollywood clichés, Cold War relics, social unrest and geopolitical posturing are spinning in the cross-currents as once-and-future Russian president Vladimir Putin prepares to return to the pinnacle of power in Moscow next month.

While the American political debate about U.S.-Russian relations seems to be caught in a time warp – with GOP front-runner Mitt Romney describing Russia as this country’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” – the mass demonstrations that erupted in Russia during this winter’s election season were portents of future change there.

“Look at your watch. It is 2012, not the mid-1970s,” the outgoing Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, told reporters after Romney’s comment. Suggesting that American politicians “should pay attention to political realities,” Medvedev added that the attitude of U.S. presidential hopefuls towards Russia “smells of Hollywood” – a likely reference to the James Bond days of “To Russia with Love.”

But the sense of déjà vu about U.S.-Russian relations stems partly from the fact that Putin – a former KGB agent and Communist Party member who had served as the Russian Federation’s second president from 2000-2008 – will once again become Russia’s president on May 7.

And, sure enough, Cold War-era spy hunting underwent a mini-revival last fall with the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” – based on John Le Carré’s 1974 novel -- about the search for a Soviet mole in the British intelligence service.

The Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, at the end of 1991, yet remnants of the Cold War struggles between Soviets and Americans remain. Even so, Putin appears to be taking power at a time when social and political unrest are weakening his hand, experts say. Within Russia, recent surveys have found that less that a fifth of Russians want to see Putin finish his six-year term, and that discontent is spreading beyond just the middle classes and the big cities. And this country and Russia have been at odds on several issues.

“There’s a lot of jockeying going on right now between Russia and the U.S.,” said James V. Wertsch, who directs International and Area Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. In a recent interview, Wertsch – who did postdoctoral research in Russia in the 1970s and has studied that nation’s culture and society over four decades – said that Russia’s growing middle class is key to its future. 

“When Putin and Medvedev kind of traded jobs … people really felt insulted, if not humiliated,” said Wertsch. “That created a level of anger that I had never seen, other than in the immediate post-Soviet period.”

He said the “level of energy and anger in the middle class … can be a real game changer. Nobody knows where this is going to lead, but I think Putin is actually in a weaker position after having been elected than he was before the election.”

Both Putin’s domestic troubles and Obama’s re-election battle will be factors in their relationship. Obama is widely regarded as being closer to Medvedev, but Wertsch said that – with Putin approaching “a fork in the road” in making decisions on key domestic and foreign-policy issues – it is important for the two leaders to at least have a good working relationship.

Next month, Obama will have an opportunity to lay the foundation for a better relationship with Putin when he meets with the Russian and other leaders of Group of Eight nations at Camp David in Maryland.

Aside from trade relations and human rights issues, some of the U.S.-Russian issues include arms control and missile defenses; coordinating anti-terrorism efforts; seeking Russian cooperation in Syria and Iran; and Russian internal policies during a time of transition.

Missile defense a sticking point

As the nation with the most nuclear warheads, Russia remains in a position to drive a hard bargain in ongoing efforts to reduce further the number of nuclear weapons.

And a planned missile defense system in Europe – a successor to the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative that aimed to shield this country from a possible nuclear attack – has been a sore point in arms control talks.

Russia claims that such a European defense system could be used against its missiles and has demanded assurances that it would not. So far, U.S. negotiators have refused to accept such restrictions. But in an off-mike comment last month during arms control talks in Korea, Obama asked Medvedev for “space” on the missile defense issue and said he would have more “flexibility” after his re-election campaign.

“On all these issues, particularly on missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama said, not realizing the microphone was on. “You can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States, and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia, and they’re in the process of a presidential transition.”

In a speech Wednesday to the Newspaper Association of America, Romney called Obama’s off-mike comments “deeply troubling.... He does not want to share his real plans before the election.” Romney asked: “What exactly does President Obama intend to do differently once he is no longer accountable to the voters?”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate intelligence committee, agreed with Romney’s stance, telling reporters that he objected to “the president’s indication to the Russians that he very well might do what he committed he would do when the [New] START treaty was passed. I didn’t think that was a good treaty.”

Blunt said some senators had reluctantly supported the New START treaty in 2010 because of assurances Obama gave them “that he appears to be backing away from in many of his comments.” Under that treaty, which the Senate ratified at the end of 2010 and went into effect last year, the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers eventually will be reduced by half. The treaty limits the number of nuclear warheads to 1,550, nearly two-thirds less than the original START treaty of 1991.

In public comments after the off-mike exchange, Obama said his goal has been consistent to reduce sharply the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And, to achieve that, this country needs to build trust with Russian leaders by finding a workable solution on missile defense. “This is not a matter of hiding the ball,” Obama said. “I want to see us gradually, systematically reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.”

Is Russia this country’s top ‘geopolitical foe’?

While Romney was on fairly safe ground in criticizing Obama’s “flexibility” comment, he was widely questioned on his assertion that Russia remains this country’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

Deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest said after the Korean summit that “you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to know that the Cold War ended 20 years ago, and that the greatest threat that the president has been fighting on behalf of the American people is the threat posed by al-Qaeda.”

Some foreign policy experts now cite China as this nation’s chief foe, but Earnest said, “There are also significant threats that are posed by nations like Iran and North Korea that have failed to live up to their international obligations when it comes to nuclear weapons.”

He said it was ironic that Russia, in particular on North Korea, has “worked very well with the international community to isolate those two regimes.”

But Romney countered that Obama's policy toward Russia has been: “We give, Russia gets.” And the GOP contender asserted that “Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues. It has continued to arm the regime of Syria's vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America's national security.”

Romney added: “It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House.”

Domestic problems may plague Putin

But Putin’s international hand may be weakened if he is forced to face daunting internal problems once he assumes the presidency next month.

First, there are the political problems that emerged with massive protest demonstrations during Putin’s election campaign this winter. “Already, some people are saying, ‘We’ve had enough, and we’re going to cause enough problems until something changes here,’” said WU’s Wertsch.

“Putin is at a fork in the road. Because he has conservative credentials, he could gradually punch down on corruption, open up so there would be more rule of law, and have the provincial officials elected rather than appointed from the central government. That would create more transparency and accountability,” Wertsch said.

“Or he could react to the continuing demonstrations by the middle class by cracking down very hard with security forces.” While Putin’s past suggests that he might opt for a crackdown, Wertsch said he might hesitate because such tactics might backfire.

At a forum last month of the Bipartisan Policy Center, former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said he saw “some reason for optimism” that Putin will move to open Russia’s economic and political system -– in part, in response to necessity.

“Russia is now the world’s No. 1 producer of oil and gas,” Evans said. “But they soon won’t be. They’re not going to have that leverage” in future years – and Putin knows it.

Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was less optimistic, predicting that Putin would try to neutralize his political opposition by trying to evoke a “silent majority” of working-class Russian nationalists.

“Russia is quite a divided country,” Sestanovich said. “There is no one silent majority. There is a series of divided minorities.”

David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, said the best way to predict Putin’s future is to examine how he maintained power during his first eight years as Russia’s president – mainly by “his willingness to use indiscriminate force” to suppress the rebellions in Chechnya.

“I don’t see any signs that those [Putin] trends are going to change in the future,” said Kramer. He thinks Putin is returning to power “to protect and preserve a corrupt regime.”

Wertsch says Putin’s greatest challenges may be in finding a way to transform Russia’s economy away from its dependence on oil and gas revenues – and to encourage young people to become innovative entrepreneurs.

“They need to transition more to building up their human capital, their intellectual future – the innovation economy,” he said. “They are not getting young people to think in innovative, entrepreneurial ways. Any time you try to do that, one of these big oligarchs comes along and says, ‘Don’t even think about it. We control all this territory.’"

Wertsch suggested that American leaders should try to encourage both economic and political reforms in Russia. “We can be critical, but there have been huge transformations in Russia” since the late 1980s.

“And there is something to be said for being patient and measured.  We cannot make things happen if we wanted to. There are some good things happening, reasons for optimism because of the new media, which is a huge force.”

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