The parliamentary elections are not going to have a major impact on Russia-US relations, but the upcoming presidential elections in Russia and the US have the potential to be more sensitive. If there is a sense that so-called Russian democracy is going into reverse, then there will be more pressure on the United States to respond.
It’s too early to tell what impact the election cycles, both in Russia and the US, will have on their relations, but the parliamentary elections are not going to have a major impact on our relationship. Obviously, there are some concerns in the United States, which have already been expressed by the State Department, about how free, fair, and transparent the elections are.
The upcoming presidential elections in Russia and the US have the potential to be a little bit more sensitive, if only because, in the Russian system, parliament doesn’t really play a central role, whereas the Russian president does. Therefore, that if there is large-scale falsification or repression of dissent arising from the results of the presidential election then it is going to be more of an issue. Still, it highly unlikely the authorities will need to resort to widescale repression, because, even though his ratings have fallen, Putin is still the most popular politician by far and there is no serious alternative candidate for the presidency.
It bears mentioning that there is a presidential election coming up in the United States next year as well, and certainly President Obama’s opponents have accused him of being too soft on Russian authoritarianism, and they think he should take a harder line on human rights abuses and the repression of dissent in Russia. So, if the Russian election in March is not seen as fair, and moreover, if we see a serious crack-down against the opposition, either now or around the presidential election, then it could have an impact on US-Russian relations.
If you talk to people in the Obama administration, they’ll tell you that the reset is not a process, but a moment. It happened at the beginning of the administration when President Obama and President Medvedev decided that they wanted to leave pre-existing disputes behind them and work towards a more positive relationship. And in doing so they were largely successful.
That doesn’t mean though that the relationship isn’t going to have problems. We’ve seen some of those problems rear their heads recently. In terms of what the relationship is going to look like going forward, that depends on a lot of things. It depends, first of all, on what happens with the Russian election. If there is a sense that so-called Russian democracy is going into reverse, then there will be more pressure on the United States to respond. We’ll see what happens with the missile defense issue. Medvedev’s statements about countermeasures are in line with what we have heard from Russian officials for the last year or so, and in a lot of ways that are just a part of the negotiations – it is a way of increasing the pressure on the United States to respond to Russian concerns. Therefore, we will see what kind of response that brings. Also on Iran and Syria. It's clear that Washington and Moscow have very different approaches to events in those countries. Anything that involves a US intervention in either Iran or Syria could have serious consequences for US-Russia relations.
The other unknown, of course, is what will happen with the election in the United States. Certainly, most of the Republican candidates have argued that this administration has not sufficiently stood up for American interests in the relationship and, moreover, offer a more confrontational approach. These sentiments are part of the political campaign, where the Republican candidates are attacking the Obama Administration's reset policy because it is one of Obama's signature foreign policy accomplishments. But if any of the Republicans were actually to come to power, they would be confronted with a reality that’s more complicated than the rhetoric they use to describe it. That being said, I think the instinct of many Republican candidates is to take more of a hard line on relations with Russia.
Another issue, of course, is Afghanistan, and here there is still a lot of room for cooperation. As the US moves forward with the withdrawal of almost all of its combat troops in the next few years, Russia’s role will obviously be very important. Russia has serious concerns about what will happen in Afghanistan during and after the withdrawal, and both countries have little choice but to work together and try to coordinate their efforts, not only the withdrawal, but also in dealing with Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond.