Courtesy Reuters

Putin's Return and Washington's Reset With Russia

Why the New President Will Have to Play Nice With Obama

With last Saturday's announcement, we now know with virtual certainty that Vladimir Putin will be returning to the Kremlin in May as the next president of Russia. His groomed and subordinate sidekick, Dmitri Medvedev, will trade his position and become the next prime minister. The "tandem," as the arrangement was originally dubbed in 2008, will endure for the foreseeable future, perhaps even for more than a decade to come.

While this leadership change portends little for Russia -- indeed, once again de jure power will be reunited with de facto power -- one key area remains a question mark: relations with Washington. Remember back to Putin's second presidential term, from 2004 to 2008. His criticisms of the United States sharpened. He obstructed a number of U.S. foreign policy initiatives such as NATO enlargement and missile defense in Europe. And then things hit rock bottom in the fall of 2008 after the Russian invasion of Georgia, just after Medvedev became president.

Yet, virtually as soon as the Obama administration came to power the following January, relations between Washington and Moscow made an abrupt about-face. The Obama administration had several key incentives to "reset." First, Washington wanted Russian support in trying to curtail Iran's nuclear weapons program. Second, increasing the United States' military presence in Afghanistan would be ever more difficult without a friendly nod from the Kremlin. And third, Obama had made nuclear arms control a signature item on his foreign policy agenda. Moscow would have to be on board.

In the face of considerable skepticism in both capitals, Obama and Medvedev resuscitated the bilateral relationship. They worked together in the United Nations to pass the toughest sanctions ever on Iran. They reached agreement with Russia and other regional states to establish new transit corridors to supply troops in Afghanistan. And sitting together in Prague in April of 2010, they signed the so-called New START treaty, the most significant nuclear arms reduction agreement the world has seen in two decades. 

But now Putin is returning to

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