HOW COULD anyone miss Vladimir Putin if he never left? It wasn’t exactly a shocker when Putin, Russia’s former president and current prime minister, announced this weekend that he will seek his old job - and in turn appoint his handpicked placeholder, current President Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister. This cynical act of political jujitsu, designed to work around a term-limits law, was a sad statement on Russian democracy and can only further the perception that Russia is on a path toward dictatorship.
Russia’s embattled reformers are rightly disappointed, and Americans should regard Putin’s bid for unfettered control with distaste, if not alarm. But Putin’s return to the presidency isn’t a surprise to those who have been following Russian politics, and it shouldn’t change the policy that the United States has been pursuing toward Moscow.
It’s been clear all along that Putin retains the real power in Russia. Medvedev has followed Putin’s lead on most issues. And neither man has showed much interest in building democratic institutions, as evidenced by the state’s continuing intolerance to free speech and the use of the judicial system to imprison detractors or competitors.
Still, the United States continues to work toward mutual goals with many governments that are enigmas, and even potential enemies. Putin’s inevitable return to the presidency will not change Russian policy much. Thus, the United States should continue its strategy, often coined the “reset’’ policy, that seeks to find common strategic interests, with no sentimentality about how the two powers really think about each other. In the last few years, the United States has worked with Russia to ratify a new treaty on arms reduction; expand sanctions against Iran through the UN Security Council; and support the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The future of democracy and human rights in Russia is indeed threatened, and the United States cannot abandon those ailing movements. At the same time, America’s national interests lie in focusing on the goals it continues to share with Russia, despite this week’s not-so-surprising turn of events.