Standing Up to Putin’s Bullying

Writing in the Moscow Times, David Kramer of the German Marshall Fund gives some tips on how Washington should handle the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev split.

Beyond raining on Medvedev’s parade, Putin also seems intent on maintaining hardline positions on issues of importance to the United States, including sanctions against Iran. In contrast to Medvedev’s seemingly open position on sanctions, Putin has repeatedly made clear his opposition to getting tougher with the Iranian regime. Is Putin weighing in on the hopes of exacting last-minute compromises from the United States, assuming that Obama is desperate to get an agreement signed and might be willing to make key concessions to Russia? Perhaps Putin is intent on blocking the reset in bilateral relations because he needs to maintain the image of the United States as a “threat” to Russia to justify his autocratic vertical power structure.

Whatever the explanation, the U.S. State Department respondedcorrectly to Putin’s year-end salvo in Vladivostok by flatly rejectinga link between post-START negotiations and missile defense. Maintaininga firm stand against provocations and bullying from Putin is exactlythe right response. At the same time, the Obama administration shouldresist getting drawn into a corner in which it is forced to make achoice between Medvedev and Putin as “most-favored negotiatingpartner.” It would be a mistake to assume that Medvedev would be moreamenable than Putin to improving relations. Obama already made thatmistake last summer when, on the eve of the summit with Medvedev, hemade a sharp remark that Putin has “one foot in the old [Cold War] waysof doing business.”

For the reset in U.S.-Russian relations to succeed, both Moscow andWashington must show interest in working together. Medvedev might beinterested in this, but from all appearances Putin — the real power inthe Kremlin — is not.