Rocky Times Ahead for Obama and Putin

Managing the relationship with Russia will be more difficult for President Obama in his second term — because he now has to deal directly with Vladimir Putin. Russians were generally indifferent to the U.S. election and the Kremlin remained above the campaign fray. If asked to make a choice, they deemed an Obama second term somewhat more palatable given Mitt Romney’s designation of Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe.” But, President Obama will have to start from scratch with the Russian president.

Over the four years of his premiership and tandem power-sharing relationship with Dmitry Medvedev, Putin deliberately avoided meetings with Obama (and many other leaders). As one Kremlin aide quipped, it was titular President Medvedev’s job to have “tea with dignitaries.” Obama and Putin only met twice. Once in Moscow in July 2009, and then during the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico in June 2012. By limiting access, Putin kept everyone guessing. He created an obsession, even at the highest levels, with finding reliable ways to pass on important messages.

The best illustration was Obama’s “hot mic” incident in Seoul in March 2012. President Obama was caught explaining to still-President Medvedev that he could not make much progress on critical issues during the U.S. election season. He hoped to have more flexibility in a second term. Medvedev reassured Obama that he would “transmit this information to Vladimir.” President Obama will now have to transmit information for himself.

He will find Vladimir on the defensive and suspicious of U.S. intentions. Putin’s primary concerns are domestic politics and ensuring regime survival — not establishing cordial relations with the U.S. president. When Putin announced in September 2011 that he would return to the Russian presidency, he did not anticipate the negative reaction from Russia’s urban elite. He was stunned by the rise of new organized opposition movements.

Putin now faces a serious dilemma. His strategic long-term plan is to rebuild and re-industrialize Russia. He needs human capital capable of creativity, innovation, and problem-solving to carry this out. But Russia’s professional classes took to the streets to protest and voted against him in large numbers — including more than fifty percent of Moscow’s urban population. Putin’s base of support is rooted in Russia’s past, among the industrial workers, public sector employees, pensioners, and rural residents, who depend heavily on Kremlin subsidies rather than create new wealth. This is Russia’s “silent majority.”

The more vocal minority of urban professionals is the constituency that the United States has funded through various civil society initiatives since the 1990s. It is also the group the Obama Administration reached out to with its first term ‘reset’ policy. In supporting this middle class, the United States has effectively put itself in conflict with the Kremlin. Putin has directly accused the 2011-2012 protestors of being foreign (i.e., U.S.) agents. Over the last several months, the Kremlin has moved aggressively to intimidate the opposition, impose hefty fines and jail sentences, and cut off their sources of funding, including closing USAID. We can expect these actions to continue, which will undermine the basic premise of President Obama’s “reset.”

The biggest barrier to changing the dynamic is Putin’s excessive focus on security, and a pervasive mistrust at all levels of the Russian political system. Putin does not want to devolve authority and lose control inside the country. The Kremlin does not want Russia to appear vulnerable in any way to outside powers. Putin distrusts the new urban middle class. Putin and the Kremlin distrust the United States and see Washington as seeking to infiltrate and overturn the Russian political system. President Obama can do little to lessen this mistrust given his own domestic political constraints and realities.

In the meantime, there are few incentives for Putin to “loosen up.” The Russian opposition movements are not motivated by economics. Obama’s second presidential term was almost upended by the U.S. economic crisis. Putin is a victim of his own economic success. Prosperity and stability in the past decade helped create the new urban middle class, which now wants political change to match its economic achievements. If Putin does not find a way to open up the political system, Russia cannot make the transition to a modern and economically competitive society without large disruptions.

The dangers, however, seem too great. The more progress Putin makes in modernizing Russia, the larger the strata of people who reject the system. Domestic dissent and Putin’s efforts to counter it will be a permanent feature of the next several years, increasing the tensions and political tussles with the United States. Against this backdrop, President Obama will have to work very hard to create and manage a relationship with a beleaguered and belligerent Vladimir Putin.