January 24, 2013

On the Horizon: Putin Presents Challenge in Obama’s Second Term

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As President Obama’s second term begins with a decisive mandate, the Administration has strong prospects for accomplishing key objectives throughout the next four years. The President has made headlines in the domestic sphere, from healthcare to guns, but the nomination of Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense suggests Obama will also attempt to distinguish himself in foreign policy with no upcoming Presidential election at stake.

There will, however, be an emerging geopolitical challenge for the United States during the President’s second term. Although President Obama’s re-election has improved his breathing room in both domestic and international politics, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reappearance on the world stage has begun to increase tensions between the two major international players.

Since returning to the Presidency in May 2012, Putin has helped to enact a series of laws that have drawn criticism from a variety of human rights organizations. The Russian government has cracked down on potential government opposition, from requiring non-governmental groups to register as foreign agents to imprisoning two female demonstrators in the infamous “Pussy Riot” incident.

Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, even speculates that under a bill proposed by the Russian parliament, “Russian Orthodox believers who view Apple’s logo as glorifying Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Bible also could prosecute Apple executives.”

With a contrasting style to his first predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin has conveyed an attitude of firm, more autonomous government in wanting to enhance Russia’s regional presence.

After witnessing a troublesome Russian economic transition during a period of foreign intervention throughout the 1990s, and the more recent U.N. intervention in removing Muammar Gaddafi from Libya, Putin has thus far drawn a line in the sand on possible interventions in Syria and Iran. Russia’s position in defending its regional economic and political strongholds has presented a roadblock for the United States in Syria, Iran, other Middle-Eastern states and former Soviet states.

The Obama administration is beginning to feel the effects of Putin’s commitment to Russian regional priorities. According to Princeton professor Stephen F. Cohen, after the President called for a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations in 2009, “Obama wanted three concessions from the Kremlin: assistance in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, harsher sanctions against Iran and Russia’s abstention on the UN Security Council vote for a no-fly zone over Libya. The White House got all three. In return, Moscow wanted a formal end of NATO’s expansion to the former Soviet republics, a compromise on European missile defense and a cessation of direct American involvement in Russian political life. Instead, it got an escalation of all three offending U.S. policies, again with virtually unanimous bipartisan and media approval.”

Recently, the Russian government has been pushing back symbolically. Russia reacted to a U.S. law putting travel restrictions on Russians accused of human rights abuses by passing a law barring U.S. adoption of Russian children beginning in 2014. Protests to the ban have begun in Russia.

Although some arms reduction negotiations between the United States and Russia have been successful, President Obama now faces a firmer, more committed Putin and Russian Parliament.

The challenge for the Obama administration will be in deciding to which Russian state interests—domestic, geopolitical or both—to accommodate in order to accomplish other pressing foreign policy objectives.

Original Author: Chris Mills