`US-Russia ties currently in a bit of flux`

Vladimir Putin has accepted the presidential seat from his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Vladimir Putin has accepted the presidential seat from his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev. Swearing the oath of office for a third time, the path this time is not easy for Putin. Occupy-style protests and mass rallies against him have made life difficult for the newly-inaugurated Russian President. He has in fact dropped a plan to go to the US to attend the G8 summit, partly to avoid criticism for inappropriately handling protests against his re-entry into the Kremlin`s highest office.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Jenia Ustinova, a Russia expert, discusses Vladimir Putin’s re-election as the Russian President, his absence in Camp David, his ties with Barack Obama and much more.

Jenia Ustinova is an analyst with Eurasia Group`s Russia practice.

Kamna: Vladimir Putin has decided not to attend the Group of Eight Summit in Camp David. What conclusions should be drawn from this?

Jenia: Putin likely had several motivations. This would have been Putin’s first visit abroad as the new President, which is typically viewed as an important signal in international diplomacy. With that in mind, Putin did not want to appear to be prioritising either the US or the G8. The timing is also inconvenient for Putin, since the G8 Summit will take place against the backdrop of recent tensions over NATO’s BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) plans and (US) Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton’s statements regarding opposition protests in Russia; tough questions at Camp David on those fronts could have forced both the leaders to make statements that would have increased bilateral tensions. Finally, domestic considerations – from ironing out the final balance of power in the Cabinet to monitoring ongoing opposition activities in Moscow -- are not to be discounted.

Kamna: Putin will reportedly make China his first foreign destination for the third presidential term. What does it indicate as far as the Russian President’s foreign policy is concerned?

Jenia: The latest reports from Russia are that Putin’s first foreign visit will most likely be to Belarus. Although this is not officially confirmed, reportedly Putin will then travel to Germany, France, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and then to China. That Putin chose Belarus for his first visit signals that Moscow will likely devote more time to Putin’s Eurasian Union project, which seeks closer integration in the post-Soviet space – along much the same lines as European Union integration. It is also not surprising that Putin would choose Germany as one of his first destinations, since the two countries have a very substantial trade relationship. Broadly speaking, Putin is a pragmatist at the end of the day, and he will prioritise bilateral relations that matter most to Russia, not least in terms of capital flows. As far as China is concerned, in his previous terms as President, Putin devoted more attention to the Asian vector of Russia’s foreign policy, and we are likely to see a return of that trend.

Kamna: How pivotal is Putin for the US?

Jenia: The US-Russia relationship is currently in a bit of flux, due to uncertainty associated with the US Presidential Election. Although the Obama administration invested heavily in the relationship with the former president, now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, it will likely seek to maintain good relations with Putin, based on pragmatic terms. Cooling is inevitable and deterioration is possible over some tough issues that the two sides cannot seem to agree on, but right now, it is not the end of US-Russia reset. For his part, Putin will also remain pragmatic. US-Russia relations will be completely reassessed if a Republican challenger wins the election in the US.

Kamna: Putin has been facing a wave of confrontations for long now. Do you think he will be able to exert control over dissenters?

Jenia: Putin begins his new term in the Kremlin weaker and with less room to manoeuvre than ever before, thanks to the wave of opposition protests this winter and spring. However, while the opposition has unquestionably grown, Putin still remains the most popular politician in Russia with backing from a majority of the population. In the foreseeable future, Putin will very likely persevere through the protests, with or without a police crackdown. Over the long term, continuous protest action – whether on the street or at the ballot box – will erode Putin’s popularity and the government will face increasing legitimacy problems.

Kamna: During his last term, Putin had forged good ties with Germany, France and Italy. Now, when Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy are no longer in the command, will it be difficult for Putin to adjust Russia`s approach in Europe?

Jenia: While it is true that Putin was seen as particularly close to a number of European leaders who are no longer in office, Putin continues to see Europe as one of priority partners for Russia no matter who holds leadership positions. A large part of the reason that Russia and Europe have forged good relations is the geographic proximity, which has facilitated a substantial trade relationship. These bilateral trade relations provide a stronger base for building new relations.

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