Russia’s Future: The Switch Between Putin and Medvedev and Our Interests

The dirty little secret is out! The announcement that Prime Minister Putin will run for the presidency of Russia in March 2012, and that he would appoint now President Medvedev as his Prime Minister has been greeted with cynicism and great disappointment. But it was inevitable ever since Medvedev said not too long ago that he would not run against Putin and that they were a team. We do not know when and under what terms they decided on this switch.

What is clear is that Medvedev did not give a hint to his backers that their hopes would be dashed. It has left a bitter taste for those in Russia that had hopes for human rights and democracy in that country if Medvedev had continued to be president.

Yet the fight for the heart and soul of Russian society and for democracy remains. But a brighter future has dimmed. What we could see is the harsh heal of Putin’s authoritarian ways. But we need to remember that what progress that has been made in the “reset” was made at least with Putin’s semi-blessing.

Building true democracy sadly will likely be a decades-long effort with Putin still in power. Much will have to be done by the Russians themselves as they watch and learn from many other authoritarian regimes as they fall under “people power.”

But the clear issue now is what is to be done by America in dealing with a Russia clearly led by Putin and with Medvedev now in an unambiguous minor role.

Clearly, however, American interest in the long-term evolution of Russia and seeing it become a responsible actor on the global stage has not changed.  Russia is too important a power to ignore or abandon to indifference.

It always was a “rough road” in relations since the fall of the USSR.  And now it will continue to be a “rough road” with some progress and some setbacks. What is important is to continue with our goals and persist in the effort to enhance our engagement with Russia and especially the Russian people as well as the leaders.

We have a long agenda with Russia and we must not be deterred by either Russian bad decisions nor by those here in the U.S. who have the bad sense and perverse goal of making Russia into an “enemy” rather than a difficult partner. Let’s remember we obtained the New START treaty, access to Afghanistan for our supplies to that war, overflight of Russia for our planes into the region, and use of Russian helicopters in that conflict. Further, Russia stood down on a veto of UN action in Libya, and we gained a number of other useful joint advantages and benefits all under the Medvedev/Putin regime largely controlled by the latter.

But Putin has made statements which show that he still harbors much animus towards the U.S. and that needs to be addressed, understood and overcome if possible. The simple fact is that good relations between the U.S. and Russia are in the fundamental interest of both nations — indeed the security and well being of the entire globe depend on that good relationship and the need to clamp down on the unnecessary nuclear weapons that both sides still hold. One danger is the crop of Republican presidential candidates who do not truly fathom the importance of that relationship for world security.

The Russians must wonder, as the rest of the world must, what the consequences might be of possible irresponsible leadership in Washington. Let’s hope they have enough sense to not contribute to the large prejudice and ignorance that some now running for president already have.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

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