What Putin’s Return to the Presidency Means for U.S.-Russia Relations

On May 7, Vladimir Putin will be inaugurated as Russia’s president, reclaiming the position that he ceded to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. That raises questions for Washington, which became comfortably accustomed to dealing with Medvedev. Putin’s return portends a more complicated bilateral relationship, but it should not go over a cliff. Here are five points to consider.

First, although Putin as prime minister was nominally number two to Medvedev, there is no doubt who held real power. As the American Embassy in Moscow reportedly put it, Putin played Batman to Medvedev’s Robin. Batman kept a close watch on things. The New START Treaty, expanded supply routes through Russia for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Moscow’s support for an arms embargo on Iran would not have happened had Putin opposed them. His return to the presidency should not mean a different strategic approach toward the United States.

Second, the tone of bilateral relations—particularly at the highest level—will change. Putin spent his formative years in the 1980s as a KGB officer, when the United States was the “glavniy protivnik,” the main opponent. As his rhetoric during the election campaign made clear, he holds a wary skepticism about U.S. goals and policies. For example, his comments suggest he does not see the upheavals that swept countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, Tunisia or Egypt as manifestations of popular discontent but instead believes they were inspired, funded and directed by Washington—and that the ultimate target is Russia.

Putin’s experience as president dealing with the Bush administration, moreover, was not a happy one. Putin extended himself early on, supporting U.S. military action against the Taliban and calmly accepting U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but he believes that he received little in return. In his view, Washington made no effort to accommodate Moscow’s concerns on key issues such as strategic arms limits, missile defense deployments, NATO enlargement or graduating Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The reset, after all, took place during Medvedev’s presidency.

Third, Putin faces tough issues at home, both economically and politically. The Russian economy and government revenues remain overly dependent on exports of oil and natural gas. While Medvedev called for economic modernization and diversification, there are few signs of a realistic plan to achieve those aims. And Putin made a number of electoral promises, including higher salaries, rising pensions and greater defense spending, that will need to be funded.

Moreover, for the first time in his experience, Putin will have to deal with the outside world without being confident that he has a solid political base at home. It will be interesting to see how that affects his foreign policy. Soviet and Russian leaders in the past resorted to the enemy image to rally domestic support, and one can see aspects of that in Putin’s campaign. But the constituency to whom that appeals is already in Putin’s camp; will the ploy resonate with an increasingly unhappy urban middle class? He may conclude that he can focus better on domestic challenges with a less confrontational relationship with countries such as the United States.

Fourth, Putin has shown himself to be realistic, particularly when it comes to money. A major article that he published in the run-up to the election described a large military modernization program designed to reassert parity with the United States. But during his first presidency, when huge energy revenues flowed into the Russian government budget from 2003 to 2007, Putin chose not to significantly increase defense spending. Instead, the extra money—and there was plenty of it—went to build international currency reserves and a “rainy day” fund on which the government drew heavily during the 2008-09 economic crisis. He understands that having a large arsenal of weapons did not save the Soviet Union. If circumstances force Putin to make tough choices, he may prove pragmatic and not necessarily choose guns over butter.

Fifth, Putin likely will not fully show his hand regarding the United States until 2013. He expects to be around for another six and possibly twelve years. He may see little harm in waiting six months to learn who will be his opposite number in the White House.

The upshot is that Putin’s return could and probably will mean more bumpiness in the U.S.-Russia relationship. He will pursue his view of Russian interests. On certain issues, those will conflict with U.S. interests, and Washington and Moscow will disagree, perhaps heatedly. Putin’s style will differ markedly from Medvedev’s. But he is not likely to seek to turn the relationship upside down or take it back to the grim days of 2008. For all the rhetoric now, we should not rule out that the American president will be able to deal with Putin.