Vladimir Putin may be stepping down as Russia's President next year in favor of his presumptive successor Dmitri Medvedev, but the broad foreign policy direction he has set for Russia represents a national political consensus shared by Russia's élites and publicand is therefore unlikely to change.
There might be some shifts in emphasis, of course, depending on Putin's role as Prime Minister in everyday policymaking. Medvedev and other senior officials could be less heated in their rhetoric or less reliant on Russia's security services in disputes with foreign energy firms and other investors. But notwithstanding possible changes in style, Americans should count on Russia to stay the course.
Putin's view that Russia is back as a major world power, that it can and should defend its interests assertively and that it does not need anyone's instructions or approval defines Russian foreign policy today. While he and his associates accept that the U.S. has unmatched military and economic power, they don't believe that Washington has a right to run the international system unilaterally or even with the support of its democratic allies.
Precisely because Russia is no match for the U.S. in hard or soft power, Putin wants to ensure that key international decisionsespecially those involving forceare taken in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has a veto and can assure that its perspectives are taken into account. This is one reason behind the Kremlin's opposition to independence for Kosovo without Security Council approvaland its insistence that if it happens, it will be a precedent for pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia and elsewhere. At the same time, in the tradition of classical geopolitics, Putin is eager to balance American might by building relationships with emerging powers such as China and India.
Putin has also ensured that the business of Russia is business and has made promoting Russian firms' commercial interests a key policy priority. The Kremlin has reasserted government control over major companies, especially energy giants, and put top officials in charge of their boardssuch as Medvedev at the natural-gas monopoly Gazprom. The Russian government doesn't simply promote the interests of leading companies, it integrates them into decision makingsometimes benefiting the firms and their leaders at the expense of national interests. Russians see the ability to grant discounted energy prices to friendly governments like Belarus and to refuse them to others like Georgia not as neoimperialist meddling but rather as a form of legitimate economic leverage that many believe puts Russia on a similar level to that of the U.S. And Moscow has not thus far sought prices from anyone higher than those it already charges its Western European customers.
Influencing Russia's immediate neighborhood is another key goal for the Kremlin. Putin is tough on neighbors who act against Moscow in the region, like Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili. Still, despite calling the collapse of the U.S.S.R. a great catastrophe, he has not attempted to re-create the Soviet Union. Putin is quite skeptical toward nato expansion, however, as he watches an alliance he sees as incorporating resentful former satellites approach Russian frontiers and encroach in traditional areas of interest. And he does not believe declarations from Washington or European capitals that containing Russia is not a goal.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Putin is not a cold war-style, zero-sum thinker nor is he reflexively anti-American or anti-Western. In fact, over the long term, Putin and his advisers worry that neighboring China's population, economy and military may be their greatest challenges. From that perspective, they want a deal with the U.S. and the Westbut a very different deal from what is on offer.
The bottom line is that Putin does not believe in free lunches. He has no emotional need to prove his democratic credentials, his repentance for the Soviet past or his adherence to the rules of a Western club he has not been asked to join. But he has demonstrated willingness to cooperate on common interests like Afghanistan, Middle East peace and nonproliferation. And, as President George W. Bush and other Western leaders have said many times, when Putin makes a specific promise, he usually delivers.
The U.S. needs to approach relations with Moscow like a business arrangement, not a love affair in which our misplaced and therefore unreciprocated affection is quickly followed by self-righteous indignation. We should start by understanding Russia's interests as Putin and his associates see them, not the way we do. Then we should go to Moscow with a realistic sense of priorities rather than try to hang every possible wish on the relationship and turn it into an overdecorated Christmas tree doomed to tip over. This means not only identifying our own key aimslike no nuclear weapons for Iranbut also being more open-minded about Moscow's. This is not about giving Putin a blank check but rather about appreciating that any deal not made under the gun has to have two sides to it. This combination of resolve when it matters and empathy wherever possible is the best way to get results from Putin. The alternativepicking a fight with the Kremlin over peripheral issues at the espense of what matters most to Americajust won't work.
Simes is president of the Nixon Center and publisher of the National Interest.