A new era in Russia will allow America to rethink its policy
The announcement by President Vladimir Putin of changes to the Russian constitution in his state of the nation address this month, followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, suggests that Russia has entered a new political era. With the country likely entering a transition period during which it could become more inwardly focused, the next American administration will then have the opportunity to develop a less personalized approach to Russia, one based on a sober assessment that the challenges posed by Russia are genuine and extend beyond Putin.
Indeed, the changes provide the strongest indication yet that Putin will not remain president beyond the end of his current term in 2024. For two decades, he has been the linchpin of the Russian political system. In part thanks to crafted branding by the Kremlin, Putin has become one of the most recognizable leaders across the world, praised by some as a pillar of “traditional values” and then vilified by others as the evil genius behind the war in Ukraine, attempts to subvert Western democracy, and other sins. President Obama famously described the Russian leader as acting like a “bored kid in the back of the classroom,” while President Trump has suggested his personal chemistry with Putin will cut through the range of disagreements poisoning relations between Washington and Moscow.
In fact, Russian foreign policy rests on a deep seated consensus that the country must remain a fully sovereign great power, a peer to the United States, and a regional hegemon in Eurasia. Even if Putin has steered it in a more confrontational direction since the protests of 2011, for which he blamed the United States and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the underlying aims and tools of Russian foreign policy do remain relatively constant. The Washington fixation on Putin has made a sober assessment of relations between the United States and Russia much more difficult.
It now seems clear that the era of “High Putinism” is ending. While Putin has ruled out changing the constitution to allow one person to serve more than two terms as president, he will almost certainly remain the principal power broker within the Russian political system. The institutional setup remains to be seen. Putin could once again become prime minister under a new president whose loyalty he trusts. He could also remain the head of the State Council, a consultative body comprising regional governors and vice governors which Putin has proposed giving “constitutional status.”
These maneuvers are similar to how aging autocrats in China, Singapore, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere have sought to ensure a stable transition. They suggest less that Putin is seeking to retain power forever and more, as he suggested over the weekend, that “it would be very worrying to return to the situation we had in the 1980s when state leaders stayed in power” without “ensuring the necessary conditions for a transition of power.”
Russia does seem to be entering a transition period, one in which it has little incentive to exacerbate an already poisonous relationship with the United States. Putin barely touched on foreign policy and was devoid of the grievances toward the West that characterized many past addresses. Apart from constitutional change, most of the emphasis was on domestic issues such as improving education, child care, and other socioeconomic issues that have fueled recent protests. Other signals also suggest that the Kremlin recognizes the danger of pushing its confrontation with the West too far. While Russia will no doubt continue low cost interventions in places such as Libya, it seems unlikely to provoke a major crisis in Europe.
For the United States, that reality implies adopting a posture of cautious waiting. Partisanship, impeachment, and the election this year have made it impossible for Washington to do much right now anyway. For too long, however, American policy has been on autopilot. While Russian political interference, military saber rattling, and the wars in Ukraine and Syria are the immediate causes of the crisis today, a reluctance dating to the 1990s to view the Russian objectives as legitimate or give Moscow a stake in the security architecture in the era after the Cold War provide the backdrop.
Indeed, the result of all this has been an escalating confrontation between the United States and Russia, the breakdown of communication channels set up to mitigate crises, and an ever closer partnership between Russia and China directed at rolling back American influence. But while Russia sorts out its own future over the coming years, the United States has a great opportunity to develop a new approach, one that is not fixated on the caricature of a malevolent Putin as the source of all our problems.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a senior fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the author of “Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.”
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