Obama's Second Term: Relations With Russia

Because of the other challenges that the United States is facing right now internationally from the euro zone crisis to the Arab Spring, there will be less focus on Russia which is not an immediate problem.

Valdaiclub.com interview with Jeffrey Mankoff, Visiting Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C.

How do you think the election results will affect our bilateral relations?

I think in general the bilateral relationship will be better under Obama than if governor Romney was elected. At the same time, I think, compared to the first Obama term, there will be less of a focus on Russia this time around, in part because Russia had become a domestic political issue in a way that it was not four years ago. The president would have to extend some political capital in order to make some progress, and I do not think he is not ready to do so. Secondly, because of the other challenges that the United States is facing right now internationally from the euro zone crisis to the Arab Spring. They are going to take much of the oxygen in the room. So, there will be less focus on Russia which is not an immediate problem.

What do you think will be the most difficult issues in US-Russia relations, not necessarily in bilateral relations but in the areas where our interests might collide?

The Middle East is proving to be the most challenging one right now. At the moment it is really focused on Syria. Depending on when the Syrian conflict comes towards a resolution sooner rather than later that could continue to be a sore point. And then in a longer term, what happens if Iran is going also to be an issue. The US is moving towards a more confrontational approach to Iran, and I think there is a lot of resistance in Russia to move in that direction. The third thing is domestic issues within Russia. There has been a lot of criticism over the elections, the Pussy Riot and everything else. The Magnitsky bill still continues to be in the spotlight. And certainly, if there is a worsening of the domestic political climate or the human rights situation in Russia, if there is some high profile event, it would be very sensitive in terms of bilateral relationships.

Since it is Obama’s last term in office, do you think he is going to give up some of the US positions in favor of Russia? AMD in Europe, of course, is the first thing that comes up to mind.

No, I do not think so. I do not think Obama has ever been a true believer in missile defense, but his flexibility is pretty limited, and I do not think there is going to be a crawl back from positions that already have been established. The comment that he made to then President Medvedev that was caught on a microphone about having flexibility in a second term I think is true. It means that if there is political will on the Russian side there is an opportunity to have a far more reaching agreement on missile defense. But I do not think that even the second Obama administration is going to walk back from its commitment of deploying some kind of missile defense system in Europe.

How will personal relations between Obama and Putin develop taking into consideration the age difference, different backgrounds, different approaches to tackling issues?

It is true that personal relationship between the two of them is not great. I think it was a mistake when President Obama said that Putin has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. That made him look as if he was trying to play Russian domestic politics and was taking the side of Medvedev. I think that was a mistake. And Putin read it that way that Obama was trying to play Medvedev against him. And in addition there are things that you mentioned: there is an age difference, difference in backgrounds, personality, in their world view. Still, I think both Obama and Putin are basically pragmatists and if they believe it is in their respective interests to find an agreement, they will be able to do that. The difference compared to when Medvedev was president is – that will be less of a priority. I think there will be less of a push to agree for the sake of agreeing, and more willingness to agree if their interests coincide.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.