The Realist Prism: Relocating U.S.-Russia Ties Beyond Obama, Putin

The Realist Prism: Relocating U.S.-Russia Ties Beyond Obama, Putin

Many commentators are predicting that with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia, the improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington that occurred under the stewardship of U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will come to an end. Some are even forecasting a return to a more confrontational period in U.S.-Russia relations, given Putin’s history of negative comments about the United States. After all, last August, the then-Russian prime minister and now president-elect castigated Americans for “living like parasites off the global economy.” And in a pre-election essay published in Moskovskiye Novosti last month, Putin lambasted the United States for its willingness to use military force to intervene in the Arab world, questioning Washington’s “bellicose itch.” He also criticized the use of “illegal instruments” under the guise of “soft power” meant to destabilize countries, and declared that “the Americans are obsessed with the idea of ensuring absolute invulnerability for themselves.”

For its part, the Obama administration made a conscious decision beginning in 2009 to treat Medvedev as its preferred interlocutor, praising him as the man of the future, while describing Putin as a relic of the Cold War past. Indeed, Medvedev’s personal story nicely complemented the Obama narrative, creating the image of two young, “next generation” transformational political figures poised to lead their countries beyond the roadblocks their baby-boomer predecessors had been unable to circumvent. Indeed, Obama’s comment, just prior to the 2009 Moscow summit, that Putin had "one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new” was, even at the time, seen as a not particularly helpful remark. It seems even less diplomatic in hindsight, given that, starting in May, this is the man Obama will have to deal with.

Should Obama lose his bid for re-election in the fall, each of the prospective Republican nominees would be even less amenable to good relations with Russia. The perception of Putin as an “ex-KGB dictator” is commonplace in Republican circles, so a change of administration in Washington offers little prospects for an improved personal relationship.

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