Dealing With the Real Putin

The Obama administration has decided it’s time to “reset the reset” with Russia. The reset was one of the administration’s first foreign policy initiatives in 2009 and certainly reduced bilateral tensions for a period. But President Obama now faces Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president instead of Dmitri Medvedev, and the entire premise of U.S.-Russia relations will have to be reviewed.

After 12 years at the top of Russian politics, Putin should be a known quantity. But policy makers and pundits are constantly diverted by the images that proliferate inside and outside Russia — from the action man tranquilizing tigers and flying with cranes, to the cruel anti-American autocrat who exploits orphans to undermine U.S. human rights legislation.

For the Obama administration to chart a new course in relations with Russia, it needs to be clear about who Vladimir Putin is and what he wants.

Putin is a man fixated on the survival of the Russian state, not just his own survival. In his first two presidential terms he worked to restore and consolidate the strength and independence of the Russian state. He did so primarily by channeling windfall revenues from the oil boom to pay off the colossal debts accumulated by his predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. He then proceeded to build up Russia’s financial and material reserves.

Putin now believes it is time to concentrate on strengthening Russia internally. In his annual “Message to the Federal Assembly” (the Russian equivalent of a State of the Union Message) in December 2012, Putin barely mentioned the outside world. The international system, he suggested, is fraught with risk for Russia, not opportunity. Russians, Putin commanded, need to turn inward. They should look to patriotism, not Westernism; to solidarity, not individualism; to spirituality, not consumerism and moral decay. He touted Russia’s historic roots and traditional values as the basis for its future trajectory.

Putin’s priority for 2013 is to reduce Russia’s exposure and vulnerability to external shocks. He is not interested in foreign policy adventures, especially not a confrontation with the United States. Putin firmly opposes U.S. policy toward Syria and the threat of force against Iran. But his opposition stems neither from anti-Americanism nor a desire to back the Iranian mullahs or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in their struggles with the West. It is rooted in his obsession with stability. Helping Tehran secure a nuclear weapon and keeping Assad in Damascus are not Putin’s goals. But an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, and NATO or the United Nations intervening in Syria to forcibly remove Assad, would increase global volatility.

Putin wants Russia to be left alone, unencumbered by liabilities and obligations. He wants Russia to hunker down in its Eurasian neighborhood and not embark on further integration with an embattled West. Putin has never seen the West as a model for Russia. Now, he is not even interested in joining it as a partner. The euro zone crisis has convinced him there is no need for Russia to pursue a “common European home” (an idea he picked up from Gorbachev and Yeltsin early in his presidency).

Although he championed Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, Putin saw this as a long-denied right, as well as a rite of passage into the “big boys club.” In his annual address, Putin promised he would ensure there is a “demand” for Russia in the world, both for the Russian economy and for a Russian role in geopolitics. Putin’s goal is to make sure the ailing West knows it needs Russia and its vast territory and resources more than Russia needs the West, even if that is an overreach.

Where does this leave the reset? The reality is this: There are no big deals to be had with Putin. Outside the traditional U.S.-Russian bilateral realm of arms control, there is no great opportunity for the Obama administration in Russia. The only quid pro quo Putin would likely strike with the United States is one no administration could (or would) contemplate — where Moscow agrees not to make life too difficult for Washington, as long as the U.S. ignores Russian domestic developments and human rights abuses.

On Iran and Syria, Putin will calibrate his moves to reduce Moscow’s exposure and increase its leverage. Meanwhile, Putin’s perceptions of U.S. meddling in Russian politics will remain the sore point in the relationship. When he considers the Russian state insulted or challenged in any way on this issue, Putin will be quick to respond.

For Putin very little is off-limits in getting his message across, as the recent ban on U.S. adoptions makes clear. Even when the myths are dispelled, the real Vladimir Putin is difficult to deal with. Putin is a man who knows what he wants. Only once the administration is clear about what that is can it begin to figure out its own message and limits in dealing with Putin’s Russia.