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February 29, 2012

Will Putin Victory Affect US-Russia Relations?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win the upcoming presidential elections.  We examine whether his return to the presidency will affect U.S.-Russia relations.

President Barack Obama has made better relations with Russia a cornerstone of his foreign policy . The so-called “reset” in relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev brought about a major arms-control agreement and increased cooperation on such issues as Afghanistan, Iran and Libya.

Analysts say there is currently a chill in relations between Washington and Moscow, due to Russia joining China in vetoing a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step aside.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the vote “a travesty.”

Russians go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president.  Current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win.  He is no stranger to the post, having been president from 2000 to 2008.

The presidential elections follow allegations of widespread fraud during December elections for parliament - the Duma.  Those charges sparked huge demonstrations in major Russian cities and have evolved into a direct challenge to Mr. Putin’s authority.

Georgetown University Russia expert Angela Stent says Vladimir Putin is employing a familiar tool during his campaign.

“He has really resorted to a tactic that, of course, has been used since he became president in 2000 - and that is to invoke the United States [as the] enemy, to blame the United States for a lot of Russian problems," said Stent. "And as you saw, in the Duma elections, he then blamed Hillary Clinton, Secretary Clinton for supporting the opposition and for trying to undermine Russian stability.”

Russia expert Robert Legvold cites another example.

“When the new [U.S.] ambassador, Michael McFaul, hosted opposition figures, even though it was a quiet meeting, the authorities knew about it, had camera people there to film it," said Legvold. "And then that led the media, certainly at Putin’s behest, or media knowing what Putin would want, to sharply attack McFaul for doing this kind of thing, interfering and then accusing the opposition party of, through that channel, receiving funding from the United States.”

U.S. government officials have denied those allegations.

Given this anti-American rhetoric, questions are being raised as to what impact a Putin presidency will have on U.S.-Russia relations.

Russia expert Sergei Glebov, of Smith College in Massachusetts, says Mr. Putin has a history of inflammatory, anti-American rhetoric.

“In many cases, this was probably rhetoric designed for domestic consumption, more than international politics," said Glebov. "But in any case, Putin appears as a politician who, at least in part, is driven by the desire to limit the power and the influence of the United States and appears as the obstacle on the path of American imaginary or real expansion, influence and power.”

Glebov believes, despite Putin’s views, relations between Washington and Moscow will not get worse.

Robert Legvold expects continuity in U.S.-Russia relations.

“It is not to say that Putin does not have a grimmer view, a more suspicious view of the U.S. then Medvedev did," he said. "But on most of the key issues - cooperation on Afghanistan, whatever kind of arms control we did or did not achieve with [the] New START [treaty], whatever progress we may or may not achieve on missile defense - I do not think that Putin is out of step with Medvedev.”

Analysts believe one thing is for sure: the U.S.-Russia relationship has grown over the years to such an extent that they say a return to the tension-filled Cold War days is virtually impossible.

Vladimir Putin's Public Image: