Vladimir Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin will strain Russia’s fragile relations with the United States, threatening to undermine improvements he helped engineer by steering Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency in 2008.
Putin’s plan to reclaim the top office from his protege in a March 2012 election will remove Medvedev, who has played a vital role in a “reset” of long-strained ties, from centre stage in the relationship with Moscow’s former Cold War foe.
Putin, who is virtually certain to win a six-year presidential term and could run again in 2018, would take his place as chief interlocutor for U.S. President Barack Obama, Reuters reporst.
“That changes the atmospherics overnight,” said Samuel Charap, director for Russia and Eurasia at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think-tank.
“You could not have Putin and Obama, jackets slung over shoulders, walking together from the White House to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” he said.
A tech-savvy product of the generation that grew up as cracks opened the Soviet Union to Western influence, Medvedev, 46, toured Silicon Valley and chatted with Obama over cheeseburgers during a U.S. visit last year.
Putin, 58, is a former KGB officer who has carried the baggage of that background into relations with the Soviet Union’s enemy, often accusing the United States of seeking to undermine Russia.
Ties soured badly during Putin’s eight-year presidency and hit a post-Soviet low when Russian tanks rolled into NATO aspirant Georgia three months after Medvedev took office.
Relations have marched mostly uphill from there: Medvedev has warmly embraced Obama’s push to improve ties, forged a friendly rapport with the U.S. president and signed a landmark nuclear arms control deal with him last year.
Medvedev has also brought the Kremlin closer to Washington on Iran, supporting new United Nations sanctions and banning the delivery of air-defence missiles to Tehran. During his term, Russia has stepped up logistical support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Russian and U.S. officials have said Putin’s return will not throw the “reset” off track. On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “Putin in his current role has been a part of those discussions and cooperation.”
Putin has remained Russia’s paramount leader, and courting the United States seems to have been part his brief to Medvedev, so Charap said there was “no reason to believe there will be a radical shift in Russian policy” towards the United States.
“There will not be a rollback of the major accomplishments of the reset,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But in a relationship where signals and symbolism have spoken loudly since the propaganda-filled era of the Cold War, analysts say the Russian leadership change could make it much harder to agree on further cooperation.
“They may hold the same position, but Putin’s style is very different from Medvedev’s — it’s more confrontational, more combative and aggressive,” said Fiona Hill, a Russia expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
If Putin sets the tone in the top-down system he has laboured to maintain, “it becomes a different diplomatic game.”
The road towards agreement on the divisive issue of missile defence may get even rougher, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, and the chances of forging further nuclear arms cuts may also diminish.
It was Obama who launched the “reset,” early in his term, but Medvedev has embraced it avidly.
By many accounts, Putin’s wariness towards Washington is steeped in feelings of betrayal: expecting a breakthrough in ties after he reached out to support the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001, he watched instead as Washington scrapped a anti-missile treaty and NATO expanded eastward.
“I think those wounds haven’t fully healed,” said Charap.
In his term as president and prime minister, Putin has made his frustration with America amply clear with words and body language, and sometimes both.
At a conference in Munich in 2007, Putin unleashed a barrage of long-festering complaints about U.S. behaviour he warned was undermining global security.
Ties have improved since then, but sometimes it seems like Putin’s sense of diplomacy has not.
Meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his residence outside Moscow one evening in March 2010, Putin lounged in a chair and launched a tirade on the state of commercial ties with the United States.
This July, Putin said the United States was “acting like hooligans” in the global economy. In August, he told pro-Kremlin youth group at a lakeside summer camp that the United States was living beyond its means “like a parasite.”
Putin’s concerns about the United States are far from a one-way street.
His decision to return to the Kremlin and make Medvedev prime minister, a job swap the pair announced on Saturday, will deepen U.S. doubts about Russian democracy and give Obama’s Republican opponents fodder for criticism of the “reset.”
“In U.S. domestic politics, Putin is toxic,” Charap said.
“Because he is seen as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with Russia, especially on Capitol Hill, that will make things difficult” in cases when Congress has a say on Russia policy, he said.
That could muddy the waters at the confirmation hearing for Obama’s choice as the next ambassador to Moscow — his top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul — and in discussions related to Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation, he said.
If criticism of the Kremlin grows louder in Washington as the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, that will raise hackles back in Moscow and further cloud chances for progress on issues such as Russia’s WTO bid.
The biggest visible rift in Russia’s ruling tandem opened up after Medvedev let NATO intervene in Libya by abstaining in a vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution last March.
Putin likened the resolution to “medieval calls for crusades,” drawing a rare public rebuke from Medvedev and suggesting that Russia might have vetoed it had he been president.
Putin and Medvedev have since closed ranks on the unrest in the Arab world, with Medvedev the Foreign Ministry thwarting Western efforts to adopt a resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his crackdown on protesters.
Several analysts said they did not expect Putin to halt support on Afghanistan or lower the current level of pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme.
Putin is unlikely to step up cooperation with Iran unless the United States moves to flex its muscles more in Russia’s neighbourhood or otherwise angers the Kremlin, Lukyanov said.
“On the whole I don’t think there will be serious changes in foreign policy, for the simple reason that Medvedev’s position has been the position of the tandem,” he said.