Vladimir Putin: Act II

Poised to rule as long as Stalin.

Former president and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will seek a third presidential term in the elections coming up in March 2012. Putin relinquished the presidency in 2008 to his protégé, Dimitry Medvedev, because of a constitutional requirement that prevented him from seeking a third consecutive 4-year term.

The announcement, made at the United Russia party congress by President Medvedev, came after weeks of speculation that Putin might grant his crony his own second term -- something the Russian president had hinted last May he wanted. But Putin, who pushed through a measure that extended the president's term to 6 years, decided otherwise, further humiliating Medvedev by having him break the news to the Russian people.

There really was never a question if Putin would run, only when. At 58 years old and in robust health, Putin could serve as president until 2024 -- longer than Brezhnev and nearly as long as Stalin.

But it is in the international arena that Putin's return raises the most concern. A fierce nationalist, he charted his own path in foreign policy and, while demonstrating a pragmatic streak with regard to international trade, his security policy threatened neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine, as well as former satellites in Eastern Europe. And his dealings with Iran and general meddling in the Middle East -- usually opposing US interests -- would make a third Putin term a cause for some alarm for friends of Israel and other US allies in the region.

Since Putin has all but eliminated serious opposition to his United Russia party through intimidation and heavy restrictions on the ability of other parties to get their message out in the state-controlled media, he should breeze to victory next March.

But even without the restrictions and heavy handedness, it is likely that he would win anyway. His policies have proved to be popular with the average Russian who supported his breakup of the state-controlled oligarchies and his bringing order to the chaos that had marked post-Soviet Russia. The slow strangling of freedom brought about by Putin's asserting control over the state apparently takes second place in the average Russian's mind to the rapidly increasing living standards that Putin's reforms brought about.

His successor liberalized the economy further, selling off state assets and loosening controls on business. But Medvedev's changes also brought about economic troubles. Russia is thriving largely as a result of the 10 million barrels of oil it produces every day, as well as the export of other natural resources. But oil production has peaked and the rising demand for consumer goods means that sometime in the next few years, Russia will be buying more from abroad than it will be exporting. This imbalance will mean that foreign investment will need to increase -- something the creaky, top-down Russian system of government may find difficult to achieve. The result may be stagflation, rising unemployment, and falling living standards -- a sure-fire recipe for civil unrest.

Putin is supporting Medvedev for prime minister, which has caused a rift in the senior levels of government with reformers. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, one of the only officials trusted by foreign investors in the Russian government, says he would step down if Medvedev was made prime minister. Kudrin wanted the office for himself and would chafe at serving under Medvedev again, given their disagreements over liberalization.

It is unlikely that Putin will radically change course, continuing the reforms begun by his successor, simply because he will have to. “Russians will continue down the road of privatization and diversification away from oil, not because they like to, but because they will be forced to,” said Ivan Tchakarov, chief economist for Renaissance, a Moscow investment bank.

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.