20 years under Putin: a timeline



The New Times, August 14, 2013

Vladimir Kara-Murza
IMR Senior Policy Advisor

On August 7, Washington announced that the US-Russia summit planned for September will not take place. Barack Obama has refused to meet with Vladimir Putin.

Every nouveau riche who scorns the established society dreams most of all of being invited to join it. This desire is all the stronger when the individual understands that such an invitation is not merited—his money is unclean; his cultural level is inadequate. And yet he wants to be invited! In the same way, a gangster who has grown rich dreams of becoming a member of an aristocratic club. In the same way, Soviet leaders of the Brezhnev era craved respect from the hated US.

[Soviet dissident] Vladimir Bukovsky, who in 1972 was serving his prison term for “anti-Soviet propaganda,” recalled a curious episode: that year, US President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China and met with Mao Zedong, a sworn enemy of the Kremlin. “It was obvious…that out leaders would be prepared to make considerable concessions in order to get Nixon to visit them as soon as possible and to have [his] photograph with Brezhnev,” Bukovsky wrote. “It was a unique moment, when…it was very simple to get a lot from the ‘unyielding’ Soviet regime.”

In the end, Nixon did come to Moscow, did pose for a photograph with Brezhnev—but demanded nothing in return (for example, the freeing of political prisoners). “Optimists thought that some secret concessions were gained nonetheless,” Bukovsky continued. “After all, the Americans cannot be so dumb as to throw away trump cards! As is now becoming apparent, they can be.”

For all his anti-Western rhetoric, membership in the club of Western democracies has been and continues to be for Vladimir Putin a matter of prestige and external legitimization, so necessary in the absence of democratic legitimacy inside the country. This is why the Kremlin reacted so nervously to US Congressional resolutions that demanded barring Russian leaders from G-8 summits—not to mention the Magnitsky Act, which threatened not only a loss of international legitimacy, but also of very tangible financial resources.

Be that as it may, Western leaders have never refused Putin’s demands for legitimization. I will never forget (because I was there myself) the royal reception given in honor of the Russian president at the London Guildhall in June 2003—exactly three days after the Kremlin shut down TVS, Russia’s last nationwide independent television channel. One may also recall George W. Bush, who “saw Putin’s soul” at the Ljubljana summit; or Barack Obama himself, the architect of the “reset” [in US-Russia relations], who was heavily criticized by human rights groups and the US Congress for ignoring human rights abuses in Russia for the sake of realpolitik. Despite the fact that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have concluded that [Russia’s] 2012 presidential election was not free, the US State Department has warmly congratulated Putin on his “victory.” Despite the “Bolotnaya Square case” and the passing of repressive laws in Russia, Obama agreed to meet with Putin at Los Cabos. Calls by human rights groups to wind down the “reset” with the non-democratic regime remained unanswered. Nothing personal, just realpolitik

In the end, it was the Kremlin that made the decisive move: even the most committed adherents of the “reset” in Washington could not ignore the brazen affront of Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden. The episode with Snowden forced the White House to take a step which, plainly speaking, should have been taken a long time ago. As usual, interests proved to be more important than values. Not human rights (although they were formally mentioned in the White House statement on the cancellation of the Obama-Putin meeting), but bitterness over Snowden turned out to be the key factor. Incidentally, something similar has happened before: the campaign for an international boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over human rights abuses in the Soviet Union went on for several years—but the US only joined it after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Of course, better late than never. The “reset” will not return, at least not with the present leadership in the Kremlin, especially since the White House’s main argument to counter opponents of the “reset” on Capitol Hill—the transit route to Afghanistan—will lose its relevance next year, when American troops return home. It looks like Barack Obama is repeating the experiences of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who grew noticeably cooler toward Moscow in their second terms.

A new substantive stage in US-Russia relations will come no sooner than the turn of 2016 and 2017. At that time, the US will likely have an incoming Republican administration, while Russia will be holding parliamentary elections. It is too early to discuss what the particular dynamics might be—but there is no doubt that it will be interesting.


Original (in Russian)