How Russia Will Deal with Obama’s Second Term?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dr. Mehdi Sanaei
Director of Russia and Eastern Europe Studies Department; University of Tehran

Despite optimistic forecasts by some analysts of international relations about continuation of [former Russian president] Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, he finally gave his place at the Kremlin Palace to his successor, Vladimir Putin. Also, to the contrary of what many pessimistic analysts said about remote possibility of the US President Barack Obama being reelected for a second term, he entered the White House for another term in office. The above fact clearly proves that people in all countries give priority to resolution of domestic problems, as well as establishment of security and economic stability in their own countries over problems which are solely of international import. Another important fact here is that understanding of global issues by two countries on two sides of the globe as well as their assessment of political incidents and developments are quite different. It would take the political mentality of the Russian nation and the elite, as well as Russia’s view of threats which the country is currently facing, in order to explain the reality as to why the country’s top officials preferred to see the former president, Vladimir Putin, back in office rather than having a full-blown presidential campaign, or seeing Medvedev at Kremlin for a second term and accepting the possible risks of that decision. The reelection of the US President Barack Obama also showed that the people of America are not anymore the conservative nation of the past years and they do not take the aggrandized risk of such foreign threats as terrorism and fundamentalism very seriously anymore.

It would take an independent article to make the comparison between these two states of affairs. However, the main issue which will be discussed here is what turn will Russia and the United States take in their relations during Obama’s second term and Putin’s third term in office as presidents of their two respective countries?

Relations between the two countries have gone through many ups and downs during the past two decades. During the 1990s, Russia’s foreign policy approach had taken a u-turn toward the West, but in the middle of the same decade, that approach was modified and a kind of new balance returned to relations between the Western and the Eastern power blocs.

During the past decade, relations between Moscow and Washington have been vacillating between strategic partnership and strategic confrontation. In 2002, and just one year after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, defined the two countries’ strategic relations on the basis of their decision to fight terrorism. Relations between the two countries became tense following color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. The tension reached its peak in 2006 following Putin’s address to the Munich Security Conference, and finally culminated in a Cold War era state after Russia went to war against Georgia in the summer of 2008. In the early months of Barack Obama’s presidency, he and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, launched a new plan to “reset” relations between the two countries. The plan provided a list of both sides’ interests and expectations. It also determined the first circle of vital interests which Moscow and Washington should have observed as well as the two countries’ red lines in various fields. The end of that period coincided with the beginning of popular uprisings in the Arab countries and the West’s military intervention in Libya which opened Russia’s eyes to the fact that it had not achieved anything during that period of amicable relations with the United States.

There have been, therefore, three major periods in relations between the two countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago: the first period was in the 1990s with the second period starting with the beginning of the third millennium. The common denominator between those periods was Russia’s hope in becoming part and parcel of the European and global political system. At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Russian foreign policy was controlled by Western-minded politicians, the idea of “Common European Home” and Russia’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was on their mind. However, after a few years passed and in 1996, Russia reached the conclusion that the approach has not only failed to have any major achievement for Moscow, but has intensified divergence as well as political and economic weaknesses inside Russia. As a result of that situation, the country had ignored developments which were going on in its periphery following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. This stage ended in dominance of a Eurasian orientation in the foreign policy of Russia which was championed by the former Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov. That attitude then dominated the entire country and ended in the election of Vladimir Putin as the Russian president. At the end of the 1990s, Russia decided to mend fences with newly established republics around it.

The period of strategic partnership, which began in the early years of the third millennium, was not marked with the idealistic concepts of democrats which ruled the country in the early 1990s. Instead, it was characterized by realistic views offered by the new President Vladimir Putin. As a result of the new approach, Russia was supposed to accompany the United States in its declared war on terror and in other fields of global politics. However, despite relative promotion of Russia’s international standing as well as strengthening of stability and security within the country’s borders during the first term of Putin’s presidency, the breakout of color revolutions in newly established republics, eastward expansion of NATO, and the issue of NATO’s decision to deploy its missile defense shield in Europe, proved to Russia that the West does not still consider Moscow a true partner for its plans.

The period of reconstruction of relations started with a pragmatic approach and movement on the basis of mutual interests. However, after four years passed, it was quite clear in 2012 that none of the goals agreed to by the United States and Russia had been achieved. Defining a new security system for Europe, which would include Russia and entail the United States’ assistance to Russia in order to modernize its industries and economy, was in fact the last idea of the former Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, which he failed to realize.

The question, now, is how relations between the United States and Russia will unravel in coming years and what features will characterize the two countries’ relations in the period which lies ahead?

The question which has been rife among analysts during the past two weeks is whether Russia preferred Barack Obama as president of the United States, or favored his Republican rival, Mitt Romney? Despite the dominant view, I believe that reelection of Obama was not a priority for Russia. Since Moscow had reached an agreement with Washington under the former US President George W. Bush for the strategic cooperation and given the fact that both the Republicans and Russian politicians put the highest emphasis on the hard power components of their countries, perhaps Russian preferred to work with the Republicans with the possibility of another major agreement on the horizon.

Another important point is that experiences gained through two decades of diplomatic interactions between Russia and the United States have made Moscow realize that plans carried out by the United States as well as geopolitical realities on the ground may set a totally different course for the two countries’ bilateral ties. The West’s military intervention in Libya made the officials in Kremlin believe that the United States as well as its European allies are still manipulating international organizations to their own ends. Russia has also come to realize that the Western countries are simply pursuing to meet their own national interests under the pretext of promoting democracy and advocating human rights, of course, through their own double standards. In doing so, they are trying to achieve their specific strategic goals for domination over the entire Middle East.

The adamant resistance of Russia against the West’s efforts to topple the Syrian government, keeping mum on Russia’s membership at the World Trade Organization by the Western countries, and sharp positions taken by the Russian officials on the role played by Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Syria can be considered along the same lines.

The relations between the United States and Russia are now in a state of limbo. Therefore, there is no doubt that both Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart, Barak Obama, are contemplating a new plan to redefine the two countries’ relations which have already gone through three different periods which have ended in a similar finale: failure to develop ties on an equal standing.

It will be explained later that during the months that have passed since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s new term in office as the president of Russia, he has already delineated his new plan both with regard to domestic issues and issues related to countries located in the geographical periphery of his country. The plan also outlines Moscow’s new approaches to major global issues. Therefore, if this is true, the United States is sure to come up with a new reciprocal plan and proposals before long.

Review of some realities and existing components of political relations between the two states will be of great help to any researcher trying to understand future developments in relations between Moscow and Washington. Here’s a brief account.

In view of its pragmatic foreign policy, economic and industrial needs, as well as its current policy to bolster relations with international organizations and avoid getting involved in costly disputes, Russia is looking forward to achieving a kind of agreement, even a minor one, with the United States for cooperation in major global issues. This possibility is further strengthened in view of the dominantly Byzantine nature of the Russian nation.

On the other hand, it is a reality that Putin’s frustration at the United States and the European Union has been escalating, thus prompting the Kremlin leaders to turn their gaze to the East. The Russian political analysts have been wondering if the existing foreign policy direction of Russia represents a long-term strategy or a short-term one. However, all of them are unanimous that Russia has been strengthening its approach to the East and has been highlighting demarcations with the United States and even with the Western Europe.

Now, the United States and the Western Europe are no longer among top priorities of Russia either in foreign policy, or in Moscow’s security and defense policies. They have been already replaced with the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Eurasian community of countries has been also redefined as the main partner for Russia’s economic cooperation. Interestingly, some Russian officials have been recently talking about the existing differences between values revered in the Russian society and those held important in the European and American societies. Some other officials have talked about political and cultural demarcations with the Western Europe and have called for limiting cooperation with the Western European countries to economic fields.

Apart from the quality of Russia’s “look to the East” policy which will be discussed elsewhere, many Russia analysts maintain that there are certain factors which have convinced the Russian statesmen to follow a more independent policy, compared to their previous policy, toward the West. Those factors, they argue, include Moscow’s suspicions about Washington’s interferences in the Middle East affairs, believing in long-term nature of the financial and economic crisis in the United States and Europe, the West’s positions on and interventions in domestic issues of Russia, especially following the Russian presidential polls in the spring of 2012, and finally, the general idea that Europe and the United States will never accept Russia as part of the Western community of states.

The best way out of the current political crisis in Syria in addition to revision of economic cooperation between the United States and Russia are among major issues which will play a determining part in setting the course of bilateral relations between the two countries in the future. In the meantime, Eurasia will become part of Russia’s vital geographical domain and an area of Moscow’s strategic influence. It seems that Russian politicians have defined three circles of influence in Eurasia, the smallest of which is the Eurasian economic community.

The United States of America, which has been incessantly trying to contain Russia throughout the past two decades through both cooperation and confrontation, is now faced with an open game in which all cards have been already played once. As a result, it would not be an easy task to come up with a new plan for relations between the United States and Russia and find a lingua franca for Putin and Obama.

Key Words: Russia, Obama’s Second Term, Medvedev, Putin, Strategic Partnership and Confrontation, NATO, Look to the East, Sanaei

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Mehdi Sanaei:

*Russia and the New Cold War in Syria:

*China, Iran, Russia and New Regionalism:

*Russia and “Independent” Initiative in Iran’s Nuclear Case:“Independent”_Initiative_in_Iran’s_Nuclear_Case.htm

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