On the eve of his third inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon for two hours to “compare notes” on global affairs, from Afghanistan to missile defense. Donilon brought Putin a lengthy memo from President Obama, which aims to develop a solid U.S.–Russian partnership. Putin, in return, promised “to go far” in boosting relations with the U.S., provided Russia will be treated as an equal partner.
This is Putin 4.0, as he was elected president in 2000 and 2004, and his protégé, Prime Minister-designate Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term (2008–2012) can easily be considered Putin 3.0.
There may be much more in President Obama’s memo to Vlad, as Obama was caught on camera in March telling Medvedev that he will have “more flexibility” to deal with contentious issues such as missile defense after the U.S. presidential election in November.
However, the Obama Administration needs to be clear what kind of a regime it is dealing with. On May 6 and 7, mass demonstrations against Putin ended in violence, upsetting Putin’s inauguration celebrations. One demonstrator reportedly fell off a roof and died, while hundreds were severely beaten with batons by helmeted riot police. More than 400 were detained, including opposition leaders Alexei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, and Sergey Udaltsov, who were fined $34 each and released.
These demonstrations come after similar protests in December, February, and March and indicate an emergence of the anti-Putin front, which includes liberals (Nemtsov), nationalists (Navalny), leftists (Udaltsov), as well as extremists, such as National Bolsheviks and anarchists. The common denominator of this opposition is its slogan “Russia without Putin,” yet their political differences are such that no agreed-upon positive program or platform is in evidence.
The opposition bitterly protested widespread fraud in the December Duma elections. It claimed that Putin’s 64 percent victory in the March 2012 poll was unfair, as some alternative candidates were denied registration, and that critics’ access to national TV channels is limited. The opposition further protests that the “administrative resources” eliminate an even playing field, as the state and state companies’ employees, from teachers to nurses, the military, and law enforcement, are effectively forced to vote for the government candidates.
Another painful issue is the ongoing anti-Americanism in the Russian state media, especially television. Using dehumanizing animal metaphors, Putin accused the opposition leaders of being “bands of monkeys” who beg at the doors of Western embassies “in a jackal-like fashion.” Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador and architect of Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia, was vilified in the Russian media and followed in the streets. Moreover, Putin claimed that the State Department financed and gave the order to foment the unrest, painting his opponents as foreign agents. Since the days of the czars and Joseph Stalin, this is a despicable tradition in Russian political life, which at times leads to physical elimination of the alleged “foreign agents.” Yet the White House issued only a faint protest against violations of democratic procedures, anti-Americanism, and even the abuse of a U.S. Ambassador.
The U.S. is facing a tough choice. While it needs to deal with Russia in the future on a number of security and economic issues, the Administration should disabuse itself of all pretenses that it is engaging with a Western-style democracy.
As we wrote last year in Heritage’s Reset Regret series:
The U.S. should pursue its national interests in relations with Moscow instead of chasing a mirage. The U.S. and Russia have mutual interests in opposing Islamic radicalism and terrorism, nonproliferation, counter-narcotics, boosting trade and investment, and expanding tourism, business, and exchanges.
Russia can benefit from access to U.S. science—especially health sciences, technology, and investment—if Moscow improves its foreign and domestic policies. However, Congress and the Administration should not tolerate Russian mischief, either domestic or geopolitical. The U.S. should not shy away from articulating its priorities and values to its Russian partners—and play hardball when necessary.