Andrei A. Piontkovsky, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, says the transition to a new U.S. presidential administration will likely coincide with more conciliatory policy by the Kremlin toward the West and the United States. The election of Dmitri Medvedev as the next Russian president, he says, is part of that approach. “It seems to me that now we have reached the end of the latest negative confrontational cycle and there are the first indications of an upward tendency,” he says. “Strategically, the needs of Russia dictate a very close alliance with the West because we face the same fundamental security challenges of Islamic radicalism and a rising China. But at the same time there have been a lot of internal political impulses pushing the Kremlin to strained relations with the West.”
How do you foresee U.S.-Russia relations in the next year? We will have a new president in the United States and, of course, Dmitri Medvedev takes over as Russia’s new president next month.
I expect the relations to shift slowly to where they used to be at 2001 to 2002, because they went too far downwards during the last six years. There’s a fundamental contradiction in Russian foreign policy toward the West generally, and the United States in particular. Strategically, the needs of Russia dictate a very close alliance with the West because we face the same fundamental security challenges of Islamic radicalism and a rising China. But at the same time there have been a lot of internal political impulses pushing the Kremlin to strained relations with the West.
First, there is the deep psychological setback of defeat in the Cold War and loss of superpower status suffered by the Russian political elite. Second, it’s been useful politically to portray the West as the enemy to justify outgoing President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. There are also the financial interests of the ruling group because they not only rule Russia; they also in effect “own” Russia, being de facto owners of the main oil and gas companies. They are interested in very high oil prices, so there is a tendency in Russian foreign policy to keep tensions high in the Middle East, and that’s especially clear in the case of Iran’s nuclear problem.
So it is inevitable that Russian foreign policy is contradictory and has a cyclic character. It seems to me that now we have reached the end of the latest negative confrontational cycle and there are the first indications of an upward tendency. Both during the recent ministers’ meeting in Moscow and during the Sochi summit [April 2008 meeting between Putin and Bush], Moscow was rather conciliatory. Earlier, the Kremlin had threatened to target its nuclear missiles on European cities and so on. But in Moscow and during Sochi, Putin went out of his way to emphasize that he believed that Russian concerns were understood by the United States and Americans were sincerely trying to assuage our concerns. There is now a tendency to reduce a bit the anti-Western posturing in government policy and propaganda.
Of course the election of Medvedev was a foregone conclusion, but what about the U.S. election? Is this creating much interest in Russia?
I have watched closely the Russian coverage of American election campaigns and can say that they have provoked in Russia much more interest than our own “elections.” First of all, there is the dramatic fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is the most exciting American election in many decades. The usual Russian propaganda coverage of the election is the denouncing of John McCain as very anti-Russian. He is described as a Cold War-type politician. I was surprised when a couple of weeks ago, I watched in Moscow a pro-Kremlin TV show about the American election and most of the participants just dismissed McCain as a kind of senile lunatic. People in the Kremlin have not yet realized that McCain has a very real chance to win. They hope very much that either Obama or Clinton will win the election.
Of course it used to be said during the days of the Cold War that Republicans worked better with the Kremlin than Democrats.
It’s an old formula, but now it doesn’t work because McCain was very plain on one particular point—to kick Russia out of the G8. Obviously that’s regarded in Moscow as very hostile. The Kremlin wants to stay a member of G8. If you ask for my personal opinion, I prefer McCain because I am afraid that under Clinton or Obama America may withdraw, from not only the Middle East but from global politics generally. As a Russian, I am scared that it will be very dangerous for my country. I am rooting for McCain not because he threatens to throw Putin or Medvedev out from the G8 but because he is very firm on fighting Islamic radicalism.
The prevailing mood in the Kremlin-run media is that McCain is too old and that he will never win. They expect either Obama or Clinton to win.
The only Russian paper I see regularly is the Moscow Times, which is often critical of Putin, but I take it that Medvedev is getting a very gentle reception.
Yes, there is a theory that Putin was a bad guy and that Medvedev is a good guy, but the fact is that they are members of the same clan. There is some reason to expect a kind of improvement in U.S.-Russian relations, [but] not because a “good guy” has come to power. It was a collective decision to improve slightly relations with the West. Medvedev is very loyal to Putin; otherwise he would not have been appointed. I think it is vice-versa: They appointed Medvedev, a person with a more liberal image, because they collectively decided that it is now time to make some improvements in their relationship with the West.
It will be very interesting when Medvedev shows up at the next G8 meeting in Japan [July 7-9] to see whether he has any independent line.
Medvedev is loyal to Putin, but inevitably having two centers, one president and the other as prime minister, is not very stable. There is bound to be some tensions if not between the persons, between their staff bureaucracies. Inevitably they will arise. Russia is now entering an unpredictable era because there have never before been two parallel centers of power.
Is it not similar to the situation when you had Leonid Brezhnev as Communist Party general secretary, Aleksei Kosygin as prime minister, and Nikolai Podgorny as president [in the 1960s]?
If you remember, when there was disagreement, General Secretary Brezhnev was in a much stronger position than Prime Minister Kosygin. Today it is the opposite situation. Constitutionally, the presidency is a much stronger institution than the prime ministership but the person who is about to hold the prime minister position—Vladimir Putin—is at least for the time being a more powerful politician.