By George A. Pieler and Jens F. Laurson
If the Kosovars had wanted to maximize Putin-mania leading up to the March 2 Russian election, they couldn’t have timed their declaration of independence any better. Stirring up pan-Slavic solidarity between Russia and Serbia is just the ticket to ensure the predictable succession from Putin to his confidant Dmitry Medvedev. Not that the election results were ever in doubt, but stirring up genuine popular enthusiasm is an effective defense against accusations of a ‘fix’.
Then again, even though the semi-democratic parliamentary elections did not give Putin’s “Our Russia” as overwhelming a majority as the princes of power had wanted, a fix is hardly needed to assure Medvedev’s ascension to the throne of oil: Putin is genuinely popular in Russia, his mix of energy imperialism, strident nationalism, and arms-length (if not always subtle) liquidation of key critics at home and abroad have proven a winning combination.
Meanwhile, Europe does its usual foreign relations game: It speaks loudly but carries no stick whatsoever. Kosovo apart, European countries are simply not willing to tease that bear too much lest they suffer disruption in fossil-fuels supplies. (And that even though such disruption would go great ways in helping the continent to meet its ever-distant Kyoto goals for reducing “greenhouse gas” emissions.)
As to the United States, it should tell us something that in the February 26 presidential debate, the closest either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton could get to identifying the leading Russian presidential candidate was Clinton’s “Um, Medved ——,” and “Medvedova, whatever.” The point being made by Tim Russert, who questioned the candidates about the Russian election, was that presidential aspirants should know who they will be dealing with. True, generally, but the better point, conveyed by both Clinton and Obama, is that it doesn’t matter—he’s “Putin’s hand-picked guy” so let’s focus on dealing with Putin for years to come.
What Russert’s questioning unintentionally illustrated, though, is that the US, like Europe, has no real policy for dealing with Russia. Noting in passing that Putin will still be in charge doesn’t address the question of how to deal with Russia in energy policy, missile defense, or NATO expansion. Issues that make even the Kosovo situation look like diplomatic peanuts. Observing this policy vacuum, Putin’s Russia won’t become more accommodating to Western sensibilities, to say the least.
The presidential candidates will need to start articulating a practical strategy of engagement with Russia. Avoiding needless confrontation and dealing quietly with controversial but manageable issues like Kosovo will be key. In that sense, recycling the tiring Medvedev=Putin / Putin=Medvedev question is just an evasion of issues the West doesn’t want to grapple with. Alas, avoidance just lets pan-Slavic national sentiment deal the prime cards to the most retrograde forces in Russian politics and advocates of perpetual Putinism. A situation which, we would be quick to notice, won’t smell like roses.
George A. Pieler is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation. Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum
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