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President Barack Obama, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Obama could be dealing directly with Putin in the futureImage: AP

Kremlin job swap

September 27, 2011

The US remains committed to its "reset" policy on relations with Russia despite Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's intention to step aside to allow Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to run for the presidency in March 2012.


With his former protégé finally putting an end to speculation over who would stand as the United Russia party's candidate in next year's poll, the way appears clear for Putin to return to the presidency which he vacated in favor of his hand-picked successor Medvedev in 2008.

It is likely that Medvedev will serve as Putin's prime minister should his mentor win the vote as expected, effectively turning the March election into an uncontested job swap.

Washington issued a measured response to the news, announcing that President Barack Obama would press ahead with its diplomatic efforts to engage with Russia regardless of who takes over in the Kremlin and that the "reset" in relations the administration has pursued with Moscow would remain on track.

"The reset has always been about national interests and not individual personalities," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. While the US and Russia would continue to "differ openly and honestly on several issues," he added, "we will continue to build on the progress of the reset whoever serves as the next president of Russia."

Little surprise in Washington

The US reaction lacked anything close to surprise - a position adopted by many analysts who were of the same opinion as the White House that this was no shift in policy because no policy had shifted.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Putin has never been far from the center of power in RussiaImage: dapd

"I think that the Americans were well aware that for all Medvedev's emollient manner, he was never really his own man," Professor Margot Light, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle. "Medvedev spoke with a soft voice but carried a pretty big stick. Putin speaks in a harsher voice but carries the same stick."

An assessment shared by Jana Kobzova, a Russia expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

"Now it is crystal clear to everyone who is in charge and who runs the system - and while many may not welcome the change, most appreciate that the clarity about who was in charge was much needed. The US policy toward Russia is a pragmatic one - to a necessary extent, Washington will engage Russia even when Putin is at helm."

Diplomatic niceties aside, it is clear that Washington would have preferred Medvedev - who has forged a close working relationship with Obama - to remain in power.

The "reset" of US-Russian ties - a centerpiece of Obama's global agenda - was pursued by the White Hosue in the hope of reversing the chill which settled over relations as Putin and former US president George W. Bush fell out over Russia's war with pro-Western Georgia.

When the leadership changed, Medvedev - close to Obama in age and a lawyer like the US president - appeared to offer the United States a more conciliatory face to deal with, despite Putin casting a long shadow over his leadership.

Obama found he could at least talk business with Medvedev, and his pursuit of better relations was welcomed by his Russian counterpart. The improving dialogue yielded a new US-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty, opened Russian routes for US supplies to its troops in Afghanistan and led to improved diplomatic cooperation over Iran and the US support for Russia's membership campaign for the World Trade Organization.

Putin: a spanner in the works?

Many observers point out that these successes in the "reset" policy would not have happened had the more confrontational Putin himself not approved them. However, there is concern that Putin's return may complicate - and possibly slow - the process of reconciliation.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev at the START II signing
There are concerns that Putin will be far less accomodatingImage: AP

Putin as prime minister has been far from silent when it comes to the United States. He recently called the US "a parasite" on the global economy for its role in the current financial crisis and it is believed that he remains convinced that the US was involved to some degree in supporting Georgia's aggression toward the breakaway region of South Ossetia which provoked the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Putin has remained a vocal critic of US support for NATO's proposed eastern expansion which would push the Western military alliance's boundaries to the very borders of Russia. He has also fiercely opposed US missile defense plans aimed at creating a protective umbrella for its allies from potential Iranian rocket attacks, even when Medvedev was working on compromises with the US to resolve the issue.

There has also been talk in Russia that Putin resents the attention Washington has lavished on Medvedev despite Washington's best efforts to engage with the prime minister as much as possible on global matters.

Russia-first policy

Despite his apparent distrust and dislike for the US, analysts believe Putin will not reverse the work which has already been done on relations but will remain committed to protecting Russian interests over all else.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Don't anger the bear: Putin will put Russia's interests firstImage: AP

"Putin prizes himself on his pragmatic policy, so how he reacts depends on what quid pro quo he thinks he can exact for being cooperative," said Light. "We can expect Putin to show his determination that Russia should be seen as the equal to US but I don't expect a more pro-active and aggressive policy, unless it is in response to attempts by the US to push Russia around."

Despite the diplomatic tone taken by the US this week, the potential return to Putin's nationalistic brand of leadership is reigniting latent concerns in Washington over Russia's direction under his control.

State Department cables released by the anti-government secrecy group WikiLeaks revealed that there was a belief among senior US politicians that democracy had been undermined in Russia during Putin's presidency and that the country had been turned into a "mafia state" led by a government which was "an oligarchy run by the security services."

New boss, old boss

While it is widely believed in the US that Putin continued to pull the strings while Medvedev ruled, it is hoped that Medvdev will still have some say over foreign policy as prime minister although, as Light explained, Putin has already made contingencies for this.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Mirror image: Moscow's tandem leadership tightens its gripImage: picture alliance/RIA Novosti

"In the past prime ministers have not really had any influence on foreign policy, both because the constitution gives the direction of policy to the president and because the foreign minister reports directly to the president not to the prime minister," she said.

"However, when Putin became prime minister, he created a strong government executive office which included foreign policy. When he goes back to the Kremlin, he will take the staff with him and so when Medvedev becomes prime minister, he will have no say on foreign policy."

She added, however, that US-Russian relations depended far more on the outcome of the US presidential elections than those in Russia.

"At present Obama is hamstrung and the reset hasn't made any progress because he doesn't have control of Congress. So we're in for a pretty long hiatus in US-Russian relations anyway, regardless who leads Russia."

In any case, said Jana Kobzova, the shift in political priorities is taking place elsewhere.

"Whatever the consequences of this shift, the most important change in US-Russia relations didn't happen when Putin announced his candidacy. It is Washington's shifting focus away from Europe, including Russia, to Asia. For Washington, Russia is no longer a top priority issue - whether it is led by Putin or Medvedev."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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