The news this past weekend of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's impending return to the presidency has elicited a wide range of commentary on the potential impact it might have on Russia's foreign policy and, in particular, on U.S.-Russia relations. There are several key points that one should keep in mind when considering the development.
First, in the years since he left office in 2008 after serving as president since 2000, Putin has remained Russia's most powerful figure. He has been able to determine policy in any area and any direction, constrained only by objective factors related to Russian state capacity. Thus we are unlikely to see major changes in Russia's foreign and defense policy when he returns.
Second, for the past four years, Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have seemingly deliberately played a "good cop, bad cop" routine when it comes to Russian national security policy. Medvedev has often taken a softer approach, stressing his determination to modernize Russia and refraining for the most part from making inflammatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, Putin has continued to badmouth his perceived domestic and foreign opponents, including the United States, and has generally adopted a hard line on security policies. There is no reason why the two leaders cannot continue these roles even when they exchange posts, with little impact on Russian policy.