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Opinion

Russian elections: US and Europe must rethink the 'reset'

Vladimir Putin, who seems set to return to the presidency after Russian elections Sunday, looks to be tossing aside the reset in relations with the US and Europe. Were the West to continue to embrace the Kremlin, it would alienate Russians, especially reformers.

By Kurt Volker / March 2, 2012

A public bus in Krasnoyarsk, Russia drives past a presidential campaign poster for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin March 2. Russians go to the polls in their presidential election on March 4. Putin says that he and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev had agreed years ago that Putin would return to the presidency.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

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Washington

As Vladimir Putin seems set to return to the presidency after Russian elections March 4, the US and Europe must rethink the “reset” policy that has guided their approach to Moscow for the past several years.

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Russia is experiencing the most dynamic period of political activity it has seen since the time of Boris Yeltsin. This is despite restrictions on political and press freedoms, mounting pressure on civil society, and massive corruption – or indeed, because of these very things.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have participated in protests across the country – not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Social media have become a vital means of open communication. 

And what people are communicating is that Mr. Putin’s “United Russia” party is the party of “crooks and thieves,” and that his scheme to reinstall himself as president is fundamentally illegitimate.

Putin’s own statement – that he and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev had agreed years ago that Putin would return as president – meant that everyone who believed that Mr. Medvedev truly represented a different path for Russia, or that Russia still could be counted as some kind of democracy, had been played for a fool.

For the past several years, US and European policy has aimed largely at cooperating with the Russian government on key issues, while modulating criticism of the Kremlin’s political and human rights restrictions, and its heavy-handed pressure on neighboring countries. 

This fact, however, has not stopped Putin, either as prime minister or as candidate for his old job, from turning up the anti-Western rhetoric and positioning his government as standing up to the West.

Actions include selling arms to Syria while blocking UN action, undercutting international sanctions on Iran, blocking NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense, threatening new missile deployments aimed at Europe, and suggesting Russia could walk away from the START II Treaty on nuclear arms signed by President Obama and Medvedev.

Putin has even accused US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of encouraging and funding the domestic protests in Russia.

This new Russian hard line is bad on its own merits – and even worse when one sees it as presaging future policy under a re-elected President Putin.

And this is the problem facing US policymakers today. Based on the far and near past, we know what Russia will be getting in a new Putin presidency. He will crack down on those who protested against him, and pursue with vigor a newly aggressive line toward his neighbors and the West.

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