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Can the U.S.-Russia ‘Reset’ Survive Russia’s Presidential Election?

It May Be Hard, but Cooperation With Russia Still Has Its Benefits

SOURCE: AP/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Government Press Service

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow on February 29, 2012.

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is poised to win the Russian presidential election this Sunday despite the rise of an unprecedented protest movement against him. The prospect of Putin’s return to the post he occupied from 2000 to 2008 has already exacerbated emerging strains in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

A Putin victory will not necessarily spell an end to the reset in U.S.-Russia relations that began under Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev. Besides strategic benefits, the case for maintaining the reset is bolstered by the rise of a new constituency for democratic change in Russia that also stands to benefit from sustained U.S.-Russia cooperation. The real challenge to the reset will be if Putin himself brings about its end either by violently cracking down on dissent or by rejecting cooperation with the West as threatening to Russian national interests or his own rule. Such an outcome is not inevitable. But if it does come to pass it can be expected to reframe U.S. policy on Russia.

We take a closer look at these issues below.

Another Putin presidency looks likely

Barring an unexpected mass shift in voting behavior, Putin’s victory in Sunday’s election is a foregone conclusion. Recent polls give Putin a 4-to-1 advantage over his leading rival, aging Communist Gennady Zyuganov, while political newcomer (and billionaire New Jersey Nets owner) Mikhail Prokhorov stands at or near the bottom of the polls.

There are several reasons why this is the case. Putin’s opponents ran lackluster campaigns and strict nomination rules shut alternative candidates out of the race. The regulations also do not permit voters to deny Putin victory by voting “against all” or by boycotting the election (no minimum turnout is required). The advantages of state-controlled broadcast media, an authoritarian political machine tasked with delivering the vote, and the existence of a large constituency who support him will also help return Putin to the presidency even given inevitable postelectoral protest.

The election is already testing the reset

Putin’s bid for reelection has already magnified existing strains in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Instead of talking about "reset," there is now talk of an “asymmetrical” Russian military buildup, accepting congressional sanctions against Russian rights violators, the stepping up of U.S.-Georgia defense cooperation, and the “despicable” voting behavior of Russia (and China) in the United Nations regarding action in Syria.

Further, new U.S. ambassador and architect of the reset policy, Michael McFaul, has faced a hostile and bizarrely personal campaign. A leading commentator on Russian state television accused him of plotting revolution after a routine meeting with opposition and civil society activists, and other detractors have followed suit.

Putin’s election campaign has been a throwback to the “pre-reset” days when he last was president. He’s accused the United States of interfering in Russian domestic affairs, intentionally undermining Russia’s nuclear deterrent capability, and irresponsibly throwing its weight around the globe.

But despite this new tenor to the U.S.-Russia relationship, the hallmark achievements of the reset are likely to last. The New START strategic arms control treaty, the Northern Distribution Network providing transit of nonlethal military goods to Afghanistan via Russia, and Russia’s anticipated entry into the World Trade Organization by way of a trade transparency agreement with Georgia are all “win-win” issues regardless of changing rhetoric or the musical chairs in Moscow.

Signs of change in Russia

It’s also important to keep in mind that if Putin returns to the presidency he will be presiding over a different Russia than the one that elected him twice before in the 2000s. The wave of major anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow and, on a smaller scale, other cities is only the latest manifestation of a fundamental shift in the relationship of Russian society to the authorities. While Putin is still the leading political figure in the country, many Russians have lost faith in the authoritarian, statist, and corrupt political-economic system that he built over 12 years. This is especially true among the urban middle class that has spearheaded Russia’s new civic activism, culminating in Russia’s largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So alongside the constituency that endorses Putin’s longevity in office has emerged another, increasingly powerful constituency that seeks improved governance and more robust democratic institutions in Russia—the kind of goals the United States has sought to support for two decades. Even after the election, this constituency may yet push Putin to implement long-awaited reforms. In the longer term it could precipitate a more dramatic change.

Cooperation is still in our interest

The rise of this constituency bolsters the case for continued U.S.-Russia cooperation. One underappreciated accomplishment of the reset has been to weaken Russian authorities’ ability to rally the population to their side by invoking the specter of Western (i.e. American) aggression. After all, a United States that seeks Russian cooperation on arms control and missile defense, promotes Russia’s integration into the global economy, and pursues joint action with Russia on counternarcotics and counterterrorism is not one the Russian government can readily paint as an adversary.

Continued cooperation with Russia on such issues is of strategic interest to the United States. But it also strengthens a constituency for change in Russia by lending credibility to more open visions of Russian governance that can compete with the statist version so often justified by reference to alleged enemies at the gate.

The real question is whether Putin will want to keep the reset alive. All bets are off if he opens his new term with a violent crackdown on protestors, activists, and an increasingly forthright media. In this case it will be difficult to maintain U.S. enthusiasm for cooperation with Russia on even desirable items deemed nonessential—arguably all of them, with the exception of the Northern Distribution Network.

And even if he avoids a crackdown, Putin’s anti-American rhetoric could prove to be more than a campaign stump. If he really believes that cooperation will do more harm than good to Russia or to his own position, he may apply the brakes to the reset.

Putin’s bid for reelection after 12 years in office has sparked a new phase in Russian domestic politics by galvanizing a constituency that’s tired of the status quo. Continued cooperation with Russia on issues of strategic interest to the United States has the additional benefit of strengthening this constituency and, accordingly, the prospects for Russia’s democratic transformation. If Russia’s presidential election leads to a violent crackdown or to Moscow’s more emphatic rejection of cooperation, however, it will unavoidably catalyze a new frame for U.S.-Russia relations.

Cory Welt is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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