Putin’s next term: experts expect further deterioration in relations with Russia

Apr 07 2018

This week, experts gathered at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, to discuss Russia’s recent presidential elections and Vladimir Putin’s next term. The experts largely expect relations between Russia and the West to deteriorate, while also calling into question Putin’s popularity at home.

The panel, which gathered on April 4th, included:

  • Strobe Talbott, distinguished fellow-in-residence at Brooking Institution
  • Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University
  • Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation
  • Julia Ioffe, contributing writer for The Atlantic

Moderated by Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow at Brookings Institution

Cold War 2.0 or “worse before it gets better?”

Strobe Talbott said that we are in a Cold War 2.0, with Russia returning to autocracy and seeking to expand its dominance outside the country’s borders and to weaken the West. However, there are also differences with the Cold War, which makes the situation more alarming. For instance, there is “no process underway to mitigate the peril of a hot war,” said Talbott. There is no arms control mechanism between Russia and NATO and whereas “old treaties are wasting away,” new treaties are needed for areas such as the digital space.

Talbott said there is concern over “transatlantic confidence and institutions” due to “the stalled European project” and the lack of coherent policy towards Russia with president Trump, who has expressed an affinity for Putin and has hesitated to condemn autocratic leaders.

Talbott said that the West should be aware that the situation could get worse, saying Putin is dangerous because “he has gotten away with so much, so he will try to get away with more.”

Angela Stent said that President Putin is likely to continue to exploit the differences and policy disparities between the U.S. and the European Union. The current U.S. administration, she said, takes a tough approach towards Russia, but President Trump has held on to a belief of having a “forward-looking relationship with Putin.” In the EU, although countries have shown solidarity with Great Britain in the aftermath of the Sergey Skripal poisoning, it is far from “perfect unity.” With some EU leaders urging for dialogue and cooperation with Russia, it is clear for Putin that “nobody likes a high level of tensions.”

Julia Ioffe added that she would expect “to see more adventurism” from the Russian government. She said the reaction from the West on the poisoning of Sergey Skripal seems to have been unexpected for Putin, pushing him further into “a corner.” In order to get out, Putin might respond with another “spectacular egregious act” in the year to come. Putin is also still trying to renegotiate “the terms of surrender in the Cold War,” and to show that Russia is equal with the West and not a “child” who can be punished. Looking forward, Ioffe agreed that “things will get far worse before they get better.”

Real popularity?

Vladimir Kara-Murza said that the Western media still uses the word election in relation to Russia, without quotation marks and most of the world leaders congratulated Putin on the victory. This despite the OSCE’s statement that Russia’s presidential elections were “a choice without real competition,” as strong candidates were eliminated and critical voices were muffled. In Russia, says Kara-Murza, the elections have lost their purpose, with rules being shifted and “the end result never in doubt.”  Kara-Murza said that assertions of Putin’s popularity “have never been tested in fair elections.”

Yet this applies to elections on all levels in Russia, noted Kara-Murza. In Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest city in Russia, the authorities have just abolished direct mayoral elections, said Kara-Murza, as they realized they couldn’t win over the popular and outspoken opposition candidate and current mayor Yevgeny Roizman. Mayors are only directly elected in seven regional capitals, which is less than a tenth of all the regional capitals, said Kara-Murza. “Directly elected mayors used to be a norm in Russian cities,” said Kara-Murza, “but are now fast approaching extinction.”

Ioffe added that in the aftermath of the tragic fire in the Siberian city Kemerovo on March 25th, when the “very popular” Putin visited the city, the streets were cleared from people and the president did not meet with grieving people. Putin only met with the governor, who apologized to Putin, not to people, which shows “who is accountable to whom and the popularity of the president.”

 “Phenomenal hypocrisy”

Stent noted that the Russian economy and money, unlike that of the Soviet Union, are integrated into the West, which makes it more difficult for Western countries to respond to Russia’s behavior.

Russian money “is very present in Great Britain,” which is one of the reasons Great Britain didn’t apply any strong measures against Russia after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. But this money is also very present in the U.S and its luxury real estate added Stent.

Kara-Murza said the elites of Putin’s regime “want to steal in Russia,” but to stash their wealth and families abroad. He said there is a “phenomenal hypocrisy” – a situation where people who violate basic human rights and rule of law in their own country, use the same privileges in the West. Moreover, the West, praising itself for democracy, rule of law and human rights, has been welcoming these people and their “dirty” money for a decade.

In terms of the violation of human rights, said Kara-Murza, Russia today is comparable to the late Soviet Union, with 146 political prisoners according to a modest estimate.  He praised the adoption of the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which allows personal sanctions against those involved in the abuse of human rights and corruption, but said more should be done.

Polyakova emphasized that the West needs to use personal sanctions, not broad economic sanctions that harm the economy and people as a result.

 by Valeria Jegisman

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