Dmitri Medvedev, a 42-year-old former first deputy prime minister, was overwhelmingly elected to succeed Vladimir Putin as president of the Russian Federation on Sunday, March 2. The election result was no surprise. Sunday's contest was just a formality.
Months ago, Medvedev secured the one vote that most mattered most, that of President Putin himself. The next American president will have to contend with the legacy of Putin's administration, likely to be upheld by president-elect Medvedev, and must painstakingly work toward the idea of a true U.S.-Russia strategic partnership. In order to form a true partnership with an increasingly emboldened Russian leadership and populous, the next administration must be willing to use its full diplomatic tool box.
The past eight years under Putin have marked a period of considerable economic growth that has allowed a consolidation of power in the hands of the ruling elite. Due to high oil and gas prices, Russia's economy has soared since the early 1990s, pulling in about 7 percent annual growth rate. It has the world's third largest currency reserves, approximately $480 billion, after China and Japan. Russian companies are getting in on the action, increasing their foreign investments. Lukoil, Russia's largest oil company, has over 2,000 facilities in thirteen U.S. states, annually generating over 2 billion gallons of gasoline sales.
Russians, at least in the large cities, are feeling a lot wealthier these days, driving consumption to unprecedented levels. Economic growth and high popularity rates have given Putin the confidence to gradually revert to Russia's imperial traditions. As economic indicators have improved, domestic political trends worsened, constituting a reversal of democratic gains witnessed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite Medvedev's stump speeches to uphold and protect civil liberties, by most accounts, Russia under Medvedev will remain on this narrow path.
With more money in the bank and a semblance of stability at home, Russia has been more aggressive on foreign policy issues, placing additional strain on U.S.-Russia relations. Russia increasingly uses energy exports as a leverage point in an attempt to regain influence in the affairs of neighboring countries. Russia's disruption of natural gas supplies to Ukraine, which has in the past affected flows to European countries, is a case in point.
Political transitions in Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo, and their integration into the international economy, trigger distress in the Kremlin; neighboring overtures to more open and participatory political systems are too close for comfort. Russia has also continued its opposition to a U.S.-backed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that would include former Soviet republics.
Yet, the most contentious issues between the U.S. and Russia are nuclear non-proliferation, chiefly with respect to Iran, and Russia's small arms sales to Iran, Venezuela and China. Russian cooperation in international efforts to impede Iran's nuclear ambitions is essential. There have been some steps in the right direction on this, notably Russia's recent urging that Iran comply with United Nations Security Council demands to curtail its nuclear program. But it will take a new direction, a new kind of dialogue from the White House before the Kremlin modifies its foreign policy positions.
The next American president will face a Russia where carrots will likely run out as a diplomatic tool. A more strategic and engaging diplomatic posture is needed to balance the use of the carrot and the stick against a newly strengthened and more emboldened Russia.
Sundaa Bridgett Jones is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.