(Wolfgang Wildner / flickr)

When it comes to Russia's political future, the only guarantee is uncertainty. Yes, on Sunday Vladimir Putin will be elected president of Russia for a six-year term, with a comfortable majority of the vote. Yes, too, huge numbers of demonstrators, probably more than a hundred thousand, will take to the streets the next day to protest.

What will happen after that, however, is difficult to predict.

Putin has been knocked off balance by the emergence of a large, mainly urban-based opposition demanding political reforms. But there is also reason to suspect that he will make changes in his foreign policy. True, when his return to the Russian presidency was announced last September, there was good reason to expect continuity more than change. For starters, it was easy then to assume that Putin approved of the foreign policy of his junior partner, President Dmitri Medvedev. More, it seemed at the time that Russia's economic challenges would command the majority of Putin's attention for the foreseeable future. Finally, there were strong incentives for Russia to improve its ties with Washington to balance against a rising China.

But now those propositions look highly dubious. Putin's latest campaign article, "Russia and the Changing World," makes clear that the so-called reset in U.S.-Russia relations is over, and that tough times lie ahead. Addressing his own question -- "Who undermines confidence?" -- Putin pointed at the United States and NATO, but especially at the Americans, who "have become obsessed with the idea of becoming absolutely invulnerable." Some may write off Putin's anti-American tone as campaign rhetoric, but it has become increasingly clear that his brash posture toward Washington reflects what he actually thinks about the United States and its foreign policy. In fact, Putin has long held these views. 

Today it's as if Putin has dialed the U.S.-Russia relationship back to 2007, when he unleashed his anti-American diatribe at the Wehrkunde security conference in Munich. Then, Putin's anti-Americanism was angry and aggressive; now, as Russian foreign affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov told a Washington audience this week, "his anti-Americanism is defensive." He sees foreign policy challenges at every turn, especially Europe's debt fiasco and China's rise; these are dilemmas over which he has little control. But domestic political stability is his principal concern, and Putin sees the United States as a threat to his sovereign rule. Anti-Americanism, at least to some extent, has been a staple of Russian political campaign rhetoric since the onset of the Putin era, but never like this. 

The rapprochement in U.S.-Russia relations had already begun to slow last spring over the Western military intervention in Libya and the breakdown in discussions about missile defense cooperation. Putin announced his return to the presidency on September 24, 2011, and subsequently the tone of Russian statements about differences with Washington on Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, and missile defense plans sharpened. 

Then came December's parliamentary elections, after which tens of thousands of Russian citizens took to the streets on three occasions. It was as if Russian domestic politics crashed into foreign policy. In response to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's criticism of those elections as "flawed," Putin accused her of "sending signals" to support the opposition. When the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, arrived in Moscow, he was lambasted on Russian national television for his supposed mission to foment revolution in Russia. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, no U.S. ambassador ever received such harsh treatment upon arrival. To add insult to injury, the Russian leadership knows very well that McFaul is a highly valued and trusted adviser to Obama; his poor treatment is on some level an affront to the president. 

It is hardly a new phenomenon for Putin and his minions to blur domestic opposition with treason and terrorism and then ascribe foreign support (read: the United States) as the culprit. What is new today is Putin's insecurity about the future of his hold on power. This was evident when he wrote in his "Changing World" piece that the Internet needs to be more carefully monitored "to reduce the risk of its being used by terrorists and other criminal elements." He wrote that so-called soft power methods -- again a nod to Washington -- "are being used all too frequently to develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries." And then there is Putin's perennial problem of "pseudo NGOs and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support." It is only natural that Putin would see the guiding hand of the U.S. State Department and intelligence services behind the opposition in his own country. And lest it be forgotten, U.S. Senator John McCain warned him that the Arab Spring was coming to Russia.

If the Americans don't like him, Putin can pivot to Asia, namely China, which he praises for its "colossal potential for business cooperation -- a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy." Moscow welcomes growing Chinese global power, he wrote, "because Beijing shares our vision of the emerging equitable world order" and "there is an unprecedentedly high level of trust between the leaders of our two countries." When Putin looks out his window in perplexed frustration at protesters he considers spoiled and misguided, he knows that his friends in Beijing will be there to support him if he feels compelled to take tough measures.

Putin is wary of being overleveraged by Beijing; a desire for balance in foreign policy is undoubtedly a part of why Moscow sought to improve relations with the United States three years ago. But that was possible only because Medvedev was the face of Russian foreign policy -- it would have been very difficult to patch things up with Putin. Yes, Washington and Moscow shared common interests, but the personal relationship between Obama and Medvedev was crucial at times to resolve policy differences, especially on the New START arms control treaty and Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. This challenges the conventional wisdom that Medvedev was just a face on Putin's foreign policy. 

In his "Changing World" article, Putin does praise New START, and he keeps the door open for continued missile defense negotiations. But it is more striking that Putin never refers to the reset, as if it never happened. Taking Putin at his word puts U.S.-Russia relations back in the highly contentious era of 2007 and 2008, when disagreements on Eastern Europe, Iran, and missile defense roiled relations. Today, the crisis in Syria will further test the relationship, and there is a wild card: Russian domestic political instability, which could affect the entire deck. Putin's leftover grievances from dealing with the Bush administration have distorted his outlook and left him with an overly rosy view of Beijing, when, in fact, growing Chinese power and influence are likely to be much bigger challenges for Russia in the years ahead than anything coming from Washington. 

Beyond asserting Russia's destiny to be an independent and truly sovereign major power, Putin lacks a real strategy and prefers to repeat long-held complaints about the United States. Fortunately, for the moment, Putin's posture is a defensive anti-Americanism rather than a hostile anti-American foreign policy. What's certain, though, is that the reset is over and Washington should prepare for a far more contentious relationship with Moscow. The tandem period could soon look relatively idyllic.

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  • ANDREW C. KUCHINS is Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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