The outcome of this month’s Russian presidential election divided Russians quite thoroughly in normative opinions, though nobody would consider it a surprise. Meanwhile, the immediate reaction in the United States has been unanimously negative and concerned with impact it will have on American foreign policy. Putin’s past anti-American rhetoric has been unsettling, though never quite crossing the threshold into the “threatening” category, and remaining in the shadow of Iranian standoffs and the War on Terror. Many may immediately associate Putin’s return with a revival of hostilities; however, was his election really the beginning of an ominous challenge for the White House?
Bitter divide over Syria presents the first contentious issue. Nobody has ever accused Vlad of being a hippie, but his stubborn stance on intervention should ring more alarms in Washington than it currently does, especially with a real possibility of a Sino-Russian alliance on the UN security council. Current discussions about China as a rival, and how it should be diplomatically handled, can continue without so much a as a mention of Russia. Putin definitely stands to change this, as he promises to take a firm stance on American intervention in the developing world.
The US-Russia “reset” policy, however, stands to continue with Putin’s return to the Kremlin, and Russia’s long-awaited joining of the World Trade Organization should give the two Presidents a friendly head start in the ever-awkward press conferences. Realistically, Russia’s modernization efforts risk being thwarted should they come into direct opposition with the United States, and Medvedev illustrated this incentive for cooperation with his positive reception of the “reset”, and enthusiasm over prospects of missile defence cooperation with Europe at the 2010 NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon.
To assess the issue in context, it is important to compare President Putin with the alternatives we could expect in the Kremlin. To break down his competition in this year’s election, Zyuganov representing the Communist party continued to garner the vote of the arch-left and almost nobody else, taking his perennial second place. Zhirinovsky gathered the opposite clan with an aggressive nationalist campaign calling for a removal of immigrants and a “Russia for Russians” – again not exactly a mainstream contender, taking an almost-respectable 6.2% of the vote. Mironov, viewed by many as a technical candidate, was quoted in 2004 as saying “We all want Vladimir Putin to be the next President”, and despite receiving 3.8% of the vote, is considered by most to be a puppet of Putin.
This really only left billionaire Independent Mikhail Prokhorov as a newcomer to politics, whom Western media had fawned over in late 2011. The precious metals tycoon, whose fortune was built in the early 90s while he and peers (like now-jailed Mikhail Khodorkhovsky) rode the unregulated capitalism wave into morally reprehensible enterprise and presented a viable alternative to middle-class Russians with his 2012 Presidential bid. However, would a pro-oligarch liberal really have been the best news for the American economy? The New York Jets owner has been open about his hopes to expand his empire into the US market, and would likely have removed protections that have kept Russian industry from being a global contender. The combination of liberal economic expansion and a political culture of rampant corruption would likely have had severely negative effects on the average Russian, and has the potential to produce a less-than-democratic climate. More importantly, running a basketball team is not remotely similar to running a country. If elected, an entirely new set of norms would have to be established in US-Russia relations, with an ambitious political entrepreneur who sees the American economy as more of a challenge than a threat. Basically, President Prokhorov would have been different, for sure, but probably not better.
The final obvious comparison is between Putin and his predecessor. The Putin vs. Medvedev contrast (or shall we say, Putin vs. Putin) is almost a moot point, as the two have clearly governed Russia in tandem throughout Medvedev’s presidency. Just as the public saw Putin’s influence through the firing of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in 2012, so Putin’s strategy could be seen in Medvedev’s cooperative enthusiasm over the New START treaty in 2009 and joint missile defence. Not to mention Putin’s begrudging tolerance of George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and presence in Central Asia and Georgia in 2001. Do we really need to fear that policies from the Kremlin are going to change? Is this really an anti-American shift, or is the US dealing with the same team with which it has negotiated for the past 20 years? While arguably bringing sexy back, Putin has never really left.
– Jenna Hornsby