Putin, Obama, and the “Reset”

 Obama’s “reset policy” with Russia and former president Dimitry Medvedev appears to have failed. The administration hoped that they could deal with Medvedev and avoid confronting the problem of Putin’s influence, but they overestimated Medvedev’s independence from Putin, and underestimated Putin’s continuing power and influence in Russian politics.

The administration had hoped that Medvedev would depart from Putin’s fiercely nationalist policies on multiple issues in significant ways, but he only did so ostensibly, not substantively. And in the end, it was Medvedev who suggested Putin should be the United Russia Party’s candidate in the 2012 elections. The agreement between the two men had apparently been made long before.

Putin has been the most powerful man in Russia for the last twelve years. After two successive terms as president constitutionally barred him from a third term, in 2008 he was made Prime Minister by his successor Medvedev in 2008. On May 7 of this year, Putin was once again inaugurated as president in predictably flawed elections. Since then, thousands of Russians have been protesting the results of the elections, alleging unfairness.

Putin’s responses to large protests against his recent re-election have been ruthless, uncompromising, and utterly predictable.

One June 8, Putin signed a law that raised fines for “unsanctioned protests.” The penalty for these protests ranges from $9,000 (almost the average annual salary in Russia) to $30,000. The Russian government must protect itself from “radicalism” as Putin puts it.

In further aggressive efforts to silence political opposition, Russian police forcibly searched the homes of several prominent protest leaders, seizing photos, cell phones, documents, and computer hard drives.

“They practically cut down the door,” said anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, whose apartment was raided by Russian police.

Putin’s stern response to democratic protests brings uneasy memories of the Cold War Russian era of KGB intimidation and control. And his sketchy election history and silencing of opposition to his authority go hand in hand with a tough guy persona. His PR stunts to promote his tough guy image have included flying military jets, showcasing his martial arts ability, and tranquilizing jungle tigers.

Putin’s image is not simply a front to portray strength. It is reflected in his actions. He has maintained true hard-nosed, unpopular policies, including support of Iran’s rights to a “peaceful” nuclear program and refusing to support resolutions calling for Al-Assad’s resignation in Syria.

In making the decision to “reset” relations with Russia, the Obama administration was trying to solve a key dilemma of U.S. relations with the Eurasian superpower: the balance between protecting important U.S. and international interests in places like Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan weighed against concern over Russia’s increasingly undemocratic government. This dilemma is reflected in the weak White House response to Putin’s reelection.

Now that the tough guy is back in power, U.S.-Russia relations are expected to take another frosty turn in the next few weeks, and Obama’s progress with Medvedev will likely not matter. Obama and Putin will at the G20 summit in Mexico next week. Perhaps Obama should declare another “reset.”