The Russian presidential election and strategic posturing

Russia will hold its presidential election on Sunday and Vladimir Putin is expected to move from his current role as Prime Minister back to the presidential helm, for at least the next six years. Ahead of the election, he has ramped up the rhetoric on strengthening Russia’s strategic posture, and has posed Russia as still being the only true global counterweight to U.S. military power.

On the campaign trail, Putin has raised his commitment to military modernization and last week wrote in Rossiyskaya Gazeta that he will prepare Russian forces to confront a wide array of advanced threats. He affirmed that his country will need to spend about billion, including on strategic missiles, during the next ten years. Russian security expert Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow noted that the character of this modernization reflects the old approach of focusing on the United States as Russia’s main opponent, and could well be beyond what the country can afford. Putin has cited U.S. and NATO plans for ballistic missile defense as one of the reasons Russia needs to bolster its strategic forces. Yet he and other Russian leaders have issued this warning repeatedly over the years and well before the current political season. Putin has emphasized in recent days how Russian strategic parity with the United States is critical for ensuring global stability, and warned of a new potential arms race. The New START signing between the two countries in the spring of 2010 now seems a distant memory.

Putin has also called out the United States on its approach to Iran, accusing Washington of trying to change the regime in Tehran, and not only prevent it from pursuing nuclear weapons. Russia has steadfastly disapproved of the more recent and stringent sanctions imposed outside of the U.N. framework. In July last year, Russia put forward a step-by-step proposal for trying to resolve the crisis which is now back under consideration, having been dismissed earlier by the United States for being too lenient on Iran. Putin’s expression of frustration goes deeper than political posturing, but also reflects genuine differences with the United States over economic and regional interests and perceptions over how to most effectively dissuade Iranian leaders from developing their own nuclear arsenal.

Even after the Russian elections are over, in the United States President Barack Obama will face his own election challenges that will make it difficult for him to devote attention or political capital to very public international diplomatic achievements, whether over arms control with Russia or Iran’s nuclear program. Political opponents may likely characterize moves toward diplomacy as signs of weakness. The Pentagon’s ongoing nuclear guidance review, which in part entails a re-analysis of how the United States should address Russian nuclear forces, has already stirred political opponents to warn against deep cuts after a recent leak to the Associated Press about various options under the highly secretive review.

Also this week, chief U.S. negotiator for the New START agreement, and now Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, Rose Gottemoeller, is traveling to Berlin, Geneva, Warsaw and Vilnius to discuss future movements for nuclear and conventional arms control in Europe. For now, this type of hard work behind the scenes will be where the arms control action happens until Russian and U.S. leaders can again tone down rhetoric focused on threats, and more visibly commit to new progress, which looks daunting even outside of election season.
These are the personal views of the author.

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