March 7, 2012

Hard Landing After Putin’s Ascent

They knew that Russia’s lax security enforcement was too good to be true, but that doesn’t numb the icy wake up call of Vladimir Putin’s electoral victory. The apparent reality that most of his opposition has accepted his inevitable return only adds to the sting.

"Those who lose never like their defeat," Putin reasoned on Wednesday.

Riot police fanned out across urban hotspots on Monday night to quell any large-scale or dramatic dissent against Putin’s third six-year term as President. They didn’t find many targets to crackdown after Moscow's Pushkin Square emptied and left hard-core members to surrender by default. A sparse number of incidents were reported as mild in comparison to previous suppression tactics, although the Special Purpose Mobile Unit (ОМОN) easily muscled demonstrators from their positions during an arrest campaign that nabbed hundreds. When OMON encircled a Moscow fountain occupied by Sergei Udaltsov, head of the Left Front movement, an assistant to the Kremlin ombudsman for human rights offered a deal to another of protest leader, Ilya Yashin.

"If you don't provoke the OMON, you can stand here as long as you want,” Valery Bakunin assured him. “Nobody will touch you.”

Yashin responded incredulously to the message, but Bukunin’s attempt to bargain encapsulated Putin’s overall strategy against his opposition. A deft mixture of hard and soft power has already blended Russia’s voting results into plausible territory; opposition and foreign monitors reduced Putin’s 64% majority to the low 50s, narrowing the gap between fact and fantasy. Voice of America’s Russia Watch observed, “For most Russians, Sunday’s election has enough legitimacy to last until oil prices collapse again.” The same policy is now being applied at the security level, and Putin countered oppositional fears by approving a 50,000-person demonstration on Wednesday.

The move was enthusiastically greeted by Udaltsov activists who spent Tuesday postponing their March 10th events. Fresh confrontation over a spillover is no less probable.

Putin’s domestic strategy to placate Russia’s opposition won’t undergo many changes when applied to the spectrum of U.S.-Russian relations. In both cases, a continuation of the status quo presents an unstable outcome going forward. Moscow’s policy towards Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea (along with resistance to a missile shield in Europe) will remain as is, leaving Washington to drift down a familiar current of uncertainty. Putin advocates increased trade and investment as a genuine path to “resetting” relations, but he also considers this narrative to be overblown by involved U.S. and Russian officials. A 6,000-word text on his foreign policy views didn’t include the word “reset,” only accusations of “persisting stereotypes and phobias” and “regular U.S. attempts of political engineering.”

Putin’s conclusion dovetailed into Washington’s ongoing debate over the limits of U.S. superpower: “The Americans are obsessed with an idea of their absolute invulnerability, which, mind you, is utopian and technologically and geopolitically impossible. And that is the core of the problem.”

Beyond Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate source of conflict between Washington and Moscow isn’t diminishing any time soon. Putin naturally targeted the perceived double-standard that Western and Gulf countries are backing Arab democratic movements in order to advance their own regional interests - a position held by many actors outside of Russia. As for U.S. speculation that Putin’s victory would ease tensions in Syria and open the door for a political resolution, this notion is completely ungrounded in reality. After losing Libya to NATO’s sphere of influence, too many Russian figures beyond Putin are standing behind Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“In this regard we would like to call on our American and European partners not to indulge in wishful thinking,” Russia’s foreign ministry warned in a recent statement.

Despite prolonged back-channel negotiations between Washington and Moscow, the two capitals continue to entrench their positions rather than move towards the compromise of Yemen’s “model.” Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Russia and China “embarrassed” themselves by vetoing a UN resolution in early February. He urged Putin to engage with Washington if Moscow wanted to “have some involvement with whatever government replaces Assad...” Problematically, Moscow seems to be operating under the impression that Syria’s opposition is too weak to legitimately threaten al-Assad’s rule, whether in one year or five. The official state position remains centered on non-interference and “a broad all-national dialogue within which only Syrians will decide on the future development of their government.”

"Instead of encouraging parties to the conflict, it's necessary to force them to sit down for talks and begin political procedures and political reforms that would be acceptable for all participants in the conflict," Putin told Western media editors last Friday.

The Foreign Ministry’s statement also demanded that Syria’s "violence must end immediately, no matter where it comes from,” an unveiled shot at the armed opposition. The odds of a ceasefire and near-term political resolution rest in single digits, if Syrians are lucky. In the event that foreign countries do stage a military intervention, Russia’s “red-line” includes its own deployment of force.

Political friction over the Arab Spring and various foreign policy issues is already compounding Washington’s response to Russia’s sensitive domestic sphere: electoral, corruption, humanitarian and energy reform. Putin views these parallel fronts as a single entity, meaning any given area can feel the effects of another. Further complicating U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow has decided that the best defense against Washington’s criticism is a good offenses; objections over Monday’s security sweep were immediately met with comparisons to the crackdown against Occupy Wall Street. As for widespread allegations over Putin’s fraudulent victory margin, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency that, “All assessments have been made. The matter is closed.”

Instead, the head of Russia’s election commission praised Sunday’s vote and the use of web cameras to ensure impartiality. Vladimir Churov added that his organization is “preparing for monitoring the U.S. presidential election from a distance,” and that he expects to find “flaws , possibly rather serious ones.” Numerous U.S. pundits have raised the unavoidable dilemma that America’s election process doesn’t offer a clean example to promote democracy.

The Obama administration possesses few options to redesign U.S.-Russian relations - few actors in Washington welcome Putin’s return to power. The best-case scenario will continue down a path of shallow compromise, with each country trying to “play nice” with the other. An equally likely scenario could erode the modest progress that was made during Dmitry Medvedev’s brief stint as president, and a head-to-head battle between Obama and Putin tilts towards the veteran strongman. Ultimately U.S.-Russian relations haven’t moved between last weekend and next weekend: each government still believes the other is trying to dominate the world.

And they will react accordingly.

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