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Might economic problems at home curtail Putin’s aggressively anti-Western foreign policy? Closer to home, this might be the case. Russia will always see the former Soviet republics in its sphere of influence and open to meddling, but Eastern Europe could be a different story. It is likely that Putin will refrain from openly threatening the former Soviet satellites, as he did when he bullied Poland and the Czech Republic into refusing the offer of a US missile shield. As much as his nationalist outlook would cause him to seek to influence former Warsaw Pact nations, he will need their investment and markets in the next few years as Russia moves from an export to an import economy.
But it is in the Middle East where Putin will cause the most trouble. He will no doubt continue the current policy toward Iran, partnering with the Islamic Republic on weapons sales and the transfer of nuclear technology. This almost certainly means there isn’t much chance of Russia voting for more stringent sanctions against Iran at the UN to prevent them from building a bomb. Russia is already playing a key role in the Iranian nuclear industry, agreeing to remove used fuel rods from the now operational reactor at Bushehr and taking them back to Russia for processing. Russian technicians are also training Iranian personnel at the plant, which would make a military strike on the reactor very hazardous, as it would likely lead to the death of Russian citizens.
The White House is putting on a brave face regarding Putin’s expected return to the presidency. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that “the reset has always been about national interests and not individual personalities.” This may be true, but it was also clear that the administration and the State Department preferred dealing with President Medvedev, he being seen as more pragmatic and reform-minded. The US also believed that it might even wean Medvedev from Putin’s control.
In truth, as the Guardian points out, this was wishful thinking:
Over the past four years Medvedev has done nothing to dispel the impression that he is anything other than a useful seatwarmer, his time in the Kremlin a legalistic blip in an epoch of endless Putin rule.
If anything, the orchestrated announcement that Putin would be a candidate for president shows that it was always Putin in the driver’s seat and Medvedev a very junior partner in their “tandem” governing arrangement.
Obama’s priorities with Russia — another nuclear arms treaty and trade liberalization — will become much more difficult with Putin in charge. The future Russian president has shown little appetite for more arms reductions and is leaning toward more protectionism.
There isn’t much the US can offer to aid in the reset and Putin knows it. We need Russia more than Russia need the US – at present. That may change in a few years, but Russia’s limited cooperation at the UN in sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program (despite resisting any sanctions that would truly bite), and Moscow’s help in moving supplies into Afghanistan, as well as its status as a major player in the Middle East, are important components of US foreign policy.
For our part, we have offered to sponsor Russia’s application to the World Trade Organization — a group that Putin harbors a dim view. And, most dear to Putin, our acknowledgment that Russia is every bit as important as the United States in world affairs.
Abrasive, sarcastic, even cruel in his public comments about America and the West, Vladimir Putin will bring back a more autocratic rule as well as a more independent foreign policy as president. If a Republican is elected in 2012, it is hoped that a more realistic and hard-headed approach toward Russia by the US that will result in a more balanced relationship would be forthcoming.
That being the case, if Vladimir Putin wants respect, he’s going to have to earn it.
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