In the shadow of the successor

It seems that fewer and fewer Russia watchers doubt that Vladimir Putin will find a way to return to the presidency in 2012, and the consensus seems to be that this ain’t gonna be good for the US. Here, we’ve got a case where the US has a pretty good idea of who Russia’s next leader is going to be and what he’s going to be like: a lot more difficult to deal with than the incumbent, Medvedev.

More after the break…

I’ve written on a similar situation with outsiders watching the US in a previous post, drawing on some insights from my dissertation, but the succession question in Russia is made interesting by the fact that few observers really think that Medvedev is strong enough to prevent Putin from regaining the presidency. When incumbents have more hawkish successors waiting in the wings, then, as long as they’re not too hawkish and some international concessions can bolster the incumbent in office, his erstwhile enemies may do just that: try to give him some victories today to take home in order to reduce the chances of the hawk taking office tomorrow. In fact, in Josh Rogin’s above-linked post on New START, Joe Biden describes the push to ratify the arms-control treaty as just that: a way to strengthen Medvedev against an expected challenge from Putin.

But what are the options when Medvedev is almost sure to be pushed aside? Here, things get trickier, because while it’s possible to take full advantage of his dovishness today without making it any more likely that the hawk will take office tomorrow (since it’s so likely to begin with), there’s no guarantee that the hawk won’t just abrogate whatever agreements he inherits. However, to the extent that agreements can be formalized to some degree and the costs of reneging on them raised, then there may be plenty of reason to “strike while the iron is hot.” Turns out this is exactly why Helmut Kohl disagreed with Bill Clinton over the latter’s desire to slow NATO expansion in the 1990s to help Yeltsin at the polls: Kohl though the man was doomed anyway, whether his liver or the polls got him first, and he pushed for expanding while it was temporarily easy.

So, as 2012 approaches, it should be interesting to see just exactly how the United States handles Medvedev. Try to give him some victories in the hopes that it’ll strengthen him against Putin (assuming he even wants to do that)? Take what we can in negotiations in the hopes of locking it in to some degree before Putin takes office? Who knows, but I do wish I’d seen this article before submitting the relevant paper for review last week…

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