Europe
1:26 am
Wed September 28, 2011

Will U.S.-Russia Reset Survive A Putin Presidency?

Originally published on Wed September 28, 2011 10:59 am

Vladimir Putin's planned run for the presidency next year comes as no surprise to U.S. policymakers. But it may make their lives more complicated and signal a return to more troubled times in U.S.-Russian relations.

Russia's dominant political party, United Russia, nominated Putin as its presidential candidate on Saturday. That virtually assures him that he will return to his old job, which he held from 1999 to 2008. The current president, Dmitry Medvedev, will be the candidate to replace Putin as prime minister.

The Obama administration has invested heavily in resetting relations with Russia, and there have been some successes. The overall atmosphere has improved. The countries reached a new arms control agreement last year. There's been increased cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

U.S. officials don't want to jeopardize any of that, and they have been careful not to play into domestic Russian politics this week, saying the U.S. priority is to keep working on improved relations with Moscow. State Department spokesman Mark Toner says the reset of relations is in everyone's interest.

"The question of who will be Russia's next president, that's a decision for the Russian people to determine," Toner said. "We believe clearly that it's in the mutual interests of the United States and Russia and the world that we do work closely together."

Obama Built Ties With Medvedev

That response was predictable says David Kramer, a former State Department official who dealt with U.S.-Russia relations. Kramer, who now runs Freedom House, says the trouble is, President Obama has put so much energy into building a relationship with Medvedev.

"The tone and atmospherics were different under Medvedev," he said. "Medvedev and Obama did develop a rapport that will be almost impossible to replicate with Putin and Obama."

In June of last year, Obama and Medvedev bonded over burgers at a restaurant in Virginia. And a year earlier, as Obama was setting off to Moscow, he told The Associated Press that he would meet both Medvedev and Putin to make sure they heard the same message.

The U.S. president described the Cold War approaches as "outdated."

"It's time to move forward in a different direction," Obama said. "I think Medvedev understands that. I think Putin has one foot in the old way of doing business, and one foot in the new."

Those are words Obama is now likely to regret, according to Kramer. He says it's clear now to everyone now that Medvedev was just a seat warmer. And even without the musical chairs in the Kremlin, U.S.-Russian relations have been rough lately.

"What we are seeing is that the reset reached its heights, say, last summer and now is on a slow downward trajectory," Kramer says.

The Russians are at odds with the U.S. administration on a number of issues. Moscow has opposed sanctions on Syria and supports the Palestinian efforts for recognition at the U.N. And Republican members of Congress have been critical of Russia's human-rights record and its trade policies.

Kramer predicts that things will only get more challenging with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin has, after all, described the U.S. as a threat and a "parasite."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, Host:

So relations in Pakistan have been a challenge for the Obama administration. Relations with another country, Russia, got more complicated after an announcement over the weekend. Dmitri Medvedev is on the way out as Russia's president because Vladimir Putin wants his old job back. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: U.S. officials have been careful not to weigh into domestic Russian politics this week, saying the U.S. priority is to keep improving relations with Moscow. The two countries have managed to come closer on issues like Iran and Afghanistan in recent years and have a new arms control treaty under their belt. So State Department spokesman Mark Toner says this reset in relations has been in everyone's interest.

MARK TONER: The question of who will be Russia's next president, that's a decision for the Russian people to determine. We on - for our part look forward to working with whoever is the next president, because we believe clearly that it's in the mutual interest of the United States and Russia and the world that we do work closely together.

KELEMEN: That response was normal and predictable, says David Kramer, a former State Department official who now runs the advocacy group Freedom House. Realistically, he says, the relationship is in for some changes. Kramer says President Obama invested heavily in his personal ties with President Dmitry Medvedev.

DAVID KRAMER: The tone and atmospherics were different under Medvedev. Medvedev and Obama did develop a rapport that I think will be almost impossible to replicate with Putin and Obama.

P: Now, the only thing about these burgers...

KELEMEN: In June of last year, Presidents Obama and Medvedev bonded over burgers at a restaurant in Virginia. A year earlier, when President Obama was setting off to Moscow, he told The Associated Press that he'd meet both President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin to make sure they hear the same message.

OBAMA: That the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated, that it's time to move forward in a different direction. I think Medvedev understands that. I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.

KELEMEN: Those are words President Obama will likely regret, says Kramer, now that it's clear to everyone that Medvedev was just a, quote, "seat warmer." And even without the musical chairs in the Kremlin, he says U.S.-Russian relations have been rough lately.

KRAMER: What we are seeing is that the reset reached its heights, say, last summer, and now is on a slow downward trajectory. And the issues of Russia's position opposing any sanctions on Syria, its support for the Palestinian efforts for recognition at the U.N., all of these things, I think, point to more challenging times.

KELEMEN: Differences over U.S. missile defense plans and Russia's aspirations to join the World Trade Organization may also get more complicated to manage, he says, especially working with Putin, who recently described the U.S. as a parasite and a threat. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.