Putin and Washington: Is Conflict Inevitable?
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


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Vladimir Putin, who was inaugurated as president of Russia on May 7, has instructed the Foreign Ministry to ensure compliance with the New START Treaty, focusing on the issue of ballistic missile defense. The meaning of the gesture is clear. Relations with the United States remain at the forefront and at the core of these relations is the issue of ballistic missile defense, a situation that is unlikely to change.

Putin created a stir by announcing that he would not be attending the G8 summit at Camp David next week but would be sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to represent Russia instead. This decision is highly significant, especially considering that one of the reasons for moving the meeting from Chicago, where a NATO summit is due to be held after the G8 meeting, is the unwillingness of both sides to start their interaction off with a conflict.

Since there has been no progress on the issue of missile defense, the tone of Putin’s potential statements had he attended the G8 summit, is predictable enough. It is in no one’s interest for this to happen, either from a security standpoint or on a political level. The lack of progress was due to the complexity of the issue itself and the election campaigns in Russia and the United States. As Obama told Medvedev in a candid moment in Seoul, unaware that his words were being picked up by microphone, he would have “more flexibility” to deal with contentious issues like missile defense after the U.S. presidential election if he is reelected, of course. Washington’s flexibility is vital for breaking the deadlock because Putin usually reciprocates to manifestations of goodwill, or more precisely, he does so when he feels that he is dealing with someone who is ready to negotiate and compromise, rather than talking to a brick wall.

The current difficulties in Russian-U.S. relations are hard to formulate: Putin has to understand that Obama is not George W. Bush. The world sees Obama as the polar opposite to Bush, but this is not so obvious to the new Russian president. Putin does not trust the United States as a matter of principle, but not because of his Soviet background or KGB training. The reason is more to do with his relations with Bush during his first two presidential terms. According to Putin, who was initially pro-American, instead of gratitude, the Bush administration responded to his moves toward rapprochement with the United States in 2000-2002 by launching an aggressive expansion into the post-Soviet space, withdrawing from the 1972 ABM Treaty, announcing plans to deploy BMD elements near Russia’s border, and setting a course for global hegemony.

As a result, Putin decided that, on the whole, gentlemanly agreements with the Americans are not possible: they do not honor their promises, they take every concession for granted and flexibility for them is simply a pretext for expanding their sphere of strategic influence. Agreements with them on some issues are possible in principle, but only after long hard bargaining, and when the results are sealed in a legally binding document. The START talks proceeded in accordance with this formula, and Russia’s 18-year marathon toward accession to the WTO is an even more explicit example.

The first – and so far only – meeting between Putin and Obama in July 2009 started with Putin talking fervently and passionately for 45 minutes about Russia’s complaints about U.S. policies. Obama listened attentively and promised to reconsider – to all appearances he has honored his promise. The reset between the United States and Russia took off in September when Obama announced his decision to cancel Bush’s plans to deploy a ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Kremlin welcomed the decision, and the process at last moved forward. However, the missile defense issue has once again reared its head. Putin believes that Washington is being disingenuous and that, whoever is president, will continue to advance its strategic project, disregarding the opinions of its partners.

Further statements on the readiness to continue working jointly can be expected to come from the Camp David talks, but practical discussions would be pointless until February or March 2013. Afghanistan may be the only exception and Medvedev may ask what Washington’s real intentions in this country are. Most Russian experts still doubt that U.S. troops will pull out of Afghanistan as planned. The general belief is that Washington will maintain a strategic presence there.

Contrary to what many believe, Russian-U.S. relations are not doomed to conflict under Putin, but they will be strained for the reasons outlined above. On the whole, the decision not to attend the G8 summit is fresh evidence that Putin dislikes diplomatic routine and endless protocol meetings with his foreign counterparts. He feels more at ease with foreign business leaders, who talk about practical issues more freely, with such meetings often culminating in practical projects.

That is why, although he has changed places with Dmitry Medvedev, Putin may try to preserve the previous tandem formula, which has proved quite effective in foreign policy. Prime Minister Medvedev could take on a broader foreign policy brief, becoming President Putin’s personal special envoy, especially since it is easier for him to find common ground with most foreign leaders. So what Obama was caught telling Medvedev in Seoul, and which caused such an uproar in the United States, may be a telling indicator of the possible format of Russian-U.S. communications for the next few years: “After my election, I will have more flexibility,” Obama said and urged Medvedev to relay this point to Putin. “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Medvedev replied.

| RIA Novosti