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FP: Putin's Waiting Game

Author: Andrew S. Weiss
June 19, 2012

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Russia's savvy president isn't trying to start a new Cold War, he's just waiting to see what happens in November, writes Andrew S. Weiss for Foreign Policy.

Despite the wan smiles and a high-minded joint statement about paving the way for a democratic transition in Syria, yesterday's meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin did little to disguise the recent series of setbacks in U.S.-Russian relations. Yes, it's been a pretty ugly couple of months. Why have things fallen apart so quickly?

For some observers, the answer is simple enough: Putin. The notoriously thin-skinned ex-KGB officer, the argument goes, has returned to the Kremlin with zero interest in continuing the "reset" policy promoted by his squishier, iPad-toting predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev. "We told you so," suggests a chorus of determinists in both America and Russia. "Putin just doesn't like America, and that's that."

After all, it was Putin who tried to pin responsibility for last December's massive street protests on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then tacitly backed a campaign of harassment against U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul. When Russia's top military commander, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, ominously warned that Russia was prepared to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against U.S. missile defense sites in Central Europe, no Russian political heavyweight, least of all Putin, stepped up to say, "Enough with this Cold War silliness!" Yet another shock came when Putin unexpectedly backed out of a planned visit to Washington for a get-to-know-you summit meeting with Obama, followed by the G-8 gathering at Camp David. (The Kremlin's surrogates insisted, not entirely convincingly, that this decision wasn't a snub.)

The problem with this analysis is that it makes things sound worse than they actually are. In fact, Putin has simultaneously acted both pugnaciously and pragmatically in recent months.

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