The meeting of U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Mexico only underscored the chill in relations between Moscow and Washington. In fact, relations have deteriorated steadily since Putin replaced the ailing Boris Yeltsin in 1999 despite Obama's ambitious program to improve - or "reset" - bilateral ties. Today the reset is over, and the two leaders no longer disguise their differences on most important international issues.
For Obama, the interment of one of his administration's signature foreign policy efforts at the outset of a re-election campaign is an unwelcome realization. With few triumphs in the international arena, Obama undoubtedly looked forward to citing improved relations with Russia as an unqualified asset. For their part, Russian leaders have also seemed contemptuous of American hopes for renewing their strained relationship. Under Putin, Moscow has steadfastly opposed Western efforts to halt civilian casualties in Syria and international efforts to block Iran's nuclear program. Most pointedly, the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul - a key author of the reset strategy - was publicly ostracized in a series of Russian media exposés.
Clearly, Putin and his government welcome the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship. Some of the interests underlying Moscow's strategy appear obvious. For example, Russia rejected the establishment of a NATO anti-missile defense shield over Europe, perceiving it as a threat. U.S. and Western policies meant to encourage the Arab Spring revolutions struck Russian authorities as part of a conspiracy aimed at - among other things - hampering Russian interests in places like Libya and Syria. Moscow sees U.S.-led international efforts to curb Tehran's nuclear program as an attempt to provoke Western or Israeli military action, with the aim of effecting regime change. This, in turn, could pave the way for the United States and its allies to strategically and commercially penetrate post-Soviet Central Asia. The West's direct access to Central Asian energy resources could cripple Russia's strategy of monopolizing energy supply corridors between Europe and the East.
There might also be a strong ideological element in Putin's attitudes toward the current U.S. president. While Obama is a post-modern liberal, Putin resembles a 19th century authoritarian conservative. Curiously, most Soviet - and Chinese - orthodox communist leaders of the 20th century preferred dealing with conservative rather than liberal U.S. statesmen. "I love the right," Mao Zedong supposedly quipped to Richard Nixon, the same ardent anti-communist with whom Leonid Brezhnev initiated détente. It was Ronald Reagan, with his vilification of the Soviet "evil empire," who ended the Cold War in partnership with perestroika leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In contrast, liberal Jimmy Carter was rewarded for his positive attitudes to Moscow with Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Putin might share some of that same distrust of liberal partners and be more apt to deal with a hard-line conservative in the White House.
Yet, there would almost certainly be tradeoffs. A conservative president would likely engage in more assertive policies toward Moscow. A more active U.S. policy toward the Middle East, the South Caucasus, or Central Europe would risk clashing more openly with Russia's positions. Why would Putin want this, given the fragility of Russian power today? Threats have been a key driver of Russian power politics throughout the history of the Empire. Putin's calculations could take many forms. A more active U.S. policy on disputed issues might demonstrate not only American power but also reveal American weaknesses. A more assertive U.S. presence in the spheres of Russian interest might also provoke more active opposition by China, and Russia may benefit from greater competition between Beijing and Washington. Or Putin might prefer an immediate, open rivalry with what he perceives to be a weakened United States across a range of issues.
Putin's policy toward the United States might be a combination of all these factors, underlining two basic tenets of Moscow's long-term geo-strategy. First, Russian strength is demonstrated through its rivalries, not through its partnerships. Moscow does enjoy partnerships - as it does today with China - but they constitute a policy of weakness, not of strength. Second, Russia's anti-Western - and, in particular, anti-American - attitudes are at the core of its historic geopolitical identity. Pushing the United States out of Europe and terminating the transatlantic link has been the backbone of Russia's grand strategy since 1945. Times are changing, of course, and long-term Russian interests would arguably benefit from closer cooperation with both Europe and the United States given the growing threats in Russia's neighborhood. Will a new mentality catch up with reality for Putin? Or are we in for an extended period of divergence between Moscow and Washington?