On Saturday, Vladimir Putin tried to dash hopes that Dmitry Medvedev will be a softie in his dealings with the West. “I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to stop exercising my powers so that they can deal with another person,” the outgoing president noted after meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel on the outskirts of Moscow. Then, referring to his 42-year-old hand-picked successor, Putin said this: “He is no less of a Russian nationalist than me, in the good sense of the word, and I do not think our partners will have it easier with him.”
Will Medvedev be a better partner for the international community? The president-elect probably holds more conciliatory views than his predecessor, but at least for the next half decade, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks. The victor in the Soviet-style election on March 2 has lived in the shadow of Putin, who will serve as Russia’s next prime minister. Moreover, Medvedev has vowed not to change things too much, saying that his presidency “will be a direct continuation.”
And he thinks that’s a good thing? Putin has staked out an assertive foreign policy, and that, unfortunately, is the path the Kremlin will take. As one Washington analyst recently remarked, “The Russians are acting like Russians again.”
While they do so, we will not be able to do much to influence them or redirect their foreign policy toward a more conciliatory course. As Merkel implied after listening to Putin, Kremlin leaders might actually become even more difficult in the future.
So what should we do? Putin the Paranoid, surprisingly enough, suggested an answer. After meeting with Merkel, he said the West was attempting to replace the United Nations with NATO. That’s a ludicrous charge, as the German chancellor bluntly noted. Yet now that he’s mentioned it, such a course of action makes more sense than trying to continue to engage Moscow and make it a partner.
More than a decade of trying to work with Russia has not had the desired effect. It’s about time that we stop, examine our policies, and change course. We have consulted with Moscow, deferred to its views, and even brought it into the club of industrialized democracies. Unfortunately, over time the Kremlin has chosen to go its own way.
Perhaps that is because the Kremlin no longer feels it is tethered to America or even neighboring Europe. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center in 2006. “Now it has left that orbit entirely.” On its own, Russia feels it can indulge its sense of grievance. Angered by NATO’s eastward enlargement, humiliated by perceived Western indifference to its post-Soviet plight, and feeling insufficiently appreciated by all, Russia is a nation that has staked a course different from our own. Unfortunately, Putin has signaled that Medvedev’s arrival will not change the nation’s approach to the world.
We cannot force the Russians to change their policies, but there is one thing we can do. We can change ours. We should stop treating Russia as if it were a respected member of the international community.