Andy GrottoWho Speaks for Russia?

There is much talk these days about the need for the United States to reengage Russia’s leadership in a strategic dialogue.

But would Russia speak with one voice?

We’re already familiar with this basic problem because it has dogged the Bush administration. Throughout the Bush presidency, foreign policy has been personality-driven and intensely factionalized: ideologues associated with Rumsfeld and Cheney have battled pragmatists aligned with Powell and, to some extent, Gates and Rice. These divisions wreaked havoc on the coherence of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in nonproliferation where policy goals lurched between regime change and behavior change. (I highly recommend Mike Chinoy’s book Meltdown, which offers a riveting account of the Bush administration’s utterly dysfunctional North Korea policy process.)

Could a similar dynamic emerge in Russia? President Medvedev is the official Russian head of state, but it is no secret that Vladimir Putin — who as Prime Minister has virtually no legal control over the levers of government and, at least according to Russia’s 1993 constitution, serves at the pleasure of the president — nevertheless wields outsize influence. Even if the two men are in agreement on most issues, this arrangement undermines formal, transparent lines of authority by replacing them with contingent, potentially opaque personal relationships.

But where there is policy disagreement, the prospects for mischief and policy entrepreneurship by factions are very high. Just as infighting within the Bush administration made it extraordinarily difficult and frustrating for foreign countries to deal with Washington, infighting in Moscow would complicate dealings with Russia.

Medvedev and Putin are believed to be very close, and I am unaware of concrete, credible evidence to the contrary. But the durability of their relationship has not been seriously tested — yet. Like many countries, Russia faces extraordinarily difficult economic times ahead. Probable recession, low energy prices, and a lack of investment capital will impose tremendous demands on the Russian state to protect its citizens and companies, and it is inevitable that some factions will fare better than others due to resource constraints and rampant corruption. These problems could stoke political factionalization, lead to even more corruption, and strain Medvedev and Putin’s informal powersharing arrangement.

Moreover, in January Moscow will see its favorite whipping boy, the Bush administration, replaced by a popular new U.S. administration that has signaled a more multilateral approach to foreign policy. With the unifying foreign nemesis gone, cracks in Moscow’s foreign policy consensus may begin to appear.

None of this is to suggest that the United States shouldn’t seek a new strategic dialogue with Russia. It most emphatically should. But it must go in with open eyes and realistic expectations.

Comments

  1. FSB

    you say “But it must go in with open eyes and realistic expectations.”

    Also, with some flexibility and less pig-headedness than the bush admin, I’d add.

  2. Gelfant

    As a one-time student of Russian history, I would tell you to simply enter “Who rules Russia?” on Google, and you will quickly see that that more things change….then look up “What must be done?” and “Who is to blame?”

  3. scud

    It will be a long, long time before Medvedev takes his independence – if he ever does. So far, I have seen zero evidence that there may be any difference between positions taken by the two of them. In the US under Bush, or (sorry for the comparison) in Iran under Khamenei, the president/supreme leader lets factions play against each other. I don’t see this happening in Russia right now.

  4. James

    Andy,

    I must be blunt. You are wrong. Medvedev is Putin’s designated caretaker president. There can be no tension between them, because Medvedev is Putin’s subordinate, regardless of formal chains of authority.

    To understand why the above is true, you must look at the context of Putin’s rise to power. I will write on this matter at some length, with your permission.

    Putin was appointed by Yeltsin in August 1999 to lead Russia’s fifth cabinet in five years, at a time of political and socieconomic crisis. Parliament voted to confirm not before but after his appointment. Yeltsin then resigned on New Year’s Eve, which triggered elections three months earlier than originally scheduled. Putin entered these early elections as acting President and Prime Minister. His main opponent, the Communist Zyuganov received a far lower percentage of the vote than he had in 1996, which is suspicious given that economic conditions remained difficult. When Putin was re-elected in 2004, no figure of national renown stood against him, with Zyuganov making way for the little-known Kharitonov, who received just 13.7% of the vote. In 2008, Medvedev was one of just 4 candidates, as opposed to 11 in 1996. Moreover, the protest voting option “against all” was removed from the ballot. Medvedev’s two serious opponents, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, had by this openly proclaimed their support for Putin and his policy stance. Both of these men have led their parties since before the current constitution was passed in 1993. Medvedev was thus competing against old politicians, with attendant doubts as to the persistence of their appeal, who made no serious attempt to challenge him. Such benign circumstances would suggest an absence of controversy, yet there were widespread allegations of election fraud on a scale hitherto unseen.

    I will not rehearse the problems of Duma elections, which are regarded by all observers, including pro-government ones, as even less transparent than those for President. I suggest that it is highly likely that all Russian elections since Putin’s appointment as Prime Minister have been fraudulent. If this is the case and Putin remains as Prime Minister, there is no possibility that Medvedev is an independent figure.

    To close this message, I remind you that Medvedev served on Putin’s staff for close to six years before being appointed deputy PM in 2005. Almost all other important members of Putin’s staff remain formally subordinated to him, in the role of ministers or members of the PM’s staff.

    I suggest there is only one faction in Russia, that of Vladimir Putin.

  5. anon

    We’re already familiar with this basic problem because it has dogged the Bush administration. Throughout the Bush presidency, foreign policy has been personality-driven and intensely factionalized: ideologues associated with Rumsfeld and Cheney have battled pragmatists aligned with Powell and, to some extent, Gates and Rice. These divisions wreaked havoc on the coherence of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in nonproliferation where policy goals lurched between regime change and behavior change. (I highly recommend Mike Chinoy’s book Meltdown, which offers a riveting account of the Bush administration’s utterly dysfunctional North Korea policy process.)

    You always blame the Rumsfeld/Cheney axis when you really don’t have a clue as to deliberations on NK policy. Most pragmatic and dare I say “hardliners” you love to deride actually fought for real nonproliferation, disarmament and verification. You are all in for a real surprise when you find yourselves marginalized in a few months. Good luck dealing with your China loving regional colleagues. They exist in all political stripes.

  6. Anya L. (History)

    James: I wonder if your perspective on Russian politics is informed by your having lived for so long in “Moscow on the Thames.” True, Russia’s political system has a lot of problems. Yet, I am puzzled by your seeming endorsements of Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky. (Serious opponents? Thanks, but no thanks.)

    Andy: I don’t know anyone in the nonpro or fp community in this country who is naive to the point that they wouldn’t negotiate with the Russians with “open eyes and realistic expectations.”

    FSB: Right on.

  7. James

    Anya,

    I have never lived in London.

    Russia’s political collapsed during the 1998 crisis and has since been subverted by Putin. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky are serious opponents compared to non-entities such as Kharitonov.

    As a general remark, you must not permit whatever affinity you may feel for Russia to cloud your judgment.

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