How powerful is Russia?

Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Article Highlights

  • Glass-half-full scenario would have #Putin turn quickly after the re-election & seek better relations with #US

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  • Kind of rhetoric #Putin has ratcheted up in the past four months is not that easily or quickly turned off

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  • Likely forecast for #US-Russian relations for the year: chilly, with a possible frost on the ground

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A day after Vladimir Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency, protesters took to the streets, questioning his victory amid claims by opposition leaders and European observers of widespread election fraud.

On March 6, the New York Times Room for Debate asked five experts the pressing question, "What does this election mean for Russia’s relations with the United States?" AEI's Leon Aron responded:

"Russia is the world’s other nuclear superpower, it is unique geostrategically, spanning Europe and Asia." -- Leon AronPlenty to worry about

Although less than 1 percent of U.S. world trade is with Russia (a fraction of the Sino-American trade) and, under Putin, Russia looks more and more like a petro-state, economics is not everything. Russia is the world’s other nuclear superpower, it is unique geostrategically, spanning Europe and Asia (and, so far, giving us an invaluable “northern route” to Afghanistan). So yes, the U.S. still has to “worry about Russia.”

And there is plenty to worry about. Just as “all politics is local,” so, in the end, all foreign policy is domestic politics. As is his wont whenever domestic politics is dicey, Putin resorted to the Russian authoritarians’ tried and true tactics: emphasizing danger from the West (meaning, today, largely the U.S.) to consolidate support for the Kremlin. Hence, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as an agitator to the protesters; the end of cooperation on the Iran sanctions; the U.N. Security Council veto on sanctions on Syria and the sales of arms to the Assad regime.

A glass-half-full scenario would have Putin turn quickly after the re-election and seek better relations with the U.S. He might well do so, since playing nicely with the U.S. traditionally accrues considerable domestic respect and legitimacy to stable Russian and Soviet regimes. But there are two problems with that. First, the kind of rhetoric he has ratcheted up in the past four months is not that easily or quickly turned off. More important, as post-election protests rattle the regime (as they certainly will), like every authoritarian in danger, he is almost certain to double up on the narrative that has him as Russia’s protector against the scheming malfeasants on the outside and the fifth-columnists on the inside.

A likely forecast for U.S.-Russian relations for the balance of the year: chilly, with a possible frost on the ground.

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at AEI.

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