A third big drag on U.S.-Russian relations comes from the so-called silly season that accompanies presidential campaigns in both countries. Of course, 2012 was always supposed to be a dead year in U.S.-Russian relations. Back-to-back presidential campaigns have overshadowed just about everything on the bilateral agenda, and practically no one in Washington or Moscow had been predicting that significant progress could be made this year on the toughest issues.
Take missile defense, for example. Putin has shown little interest in cutting deals on major arms control issues with a U.S. president who might not be around in just a few months time to implement them. Putin actually found himself in a nearly identical position in 2000 when then-President Bill Clinton attempted to negotiate a deal on missile defense during his final months in office. It was a frustrating experience for Clinton who felt that Putin was acting like a bored partygoer who kept looking over his shoulder for someone more interesting to talk to. Instead of engaging with Clinton, Putin ultimately chose to run out the clock and take his chances with the incoming U.S. administration.
The Russians are adopting similar tactics this time around with their utterly unrealistic demand for legally binding restrictions on deployments of future U.S. ballistic missile defenses. Even a cursory reading of the 2010 Senate debate on ratification of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty leaves little doubt that such an agreement would be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. Of course, alarmist rhetoric about threats to Russia's national security and the survival of its strategic deterrent probably has other motivations, not least the need to justify the Kremlin's bloated $700 billion defense buildup through 2020 for domestic audiences.
In the United States, the White House's best-laid plans to insulate the relationship from election-year politics were disrupted by Obama's open-mic suggestion to Medvedev that he might have greater flexibility on missile defense after the November election. GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney may have raised eyebrows when he asserted that Russia is "without question, our number one geopolitical foe," but he set the stage for a more serious debate about Russia policy between now and November. Further complicating matters, congressional critics from both parties are now jumping into the fray with the so-called Magnitsky bill, which is on track for passage before the summer recess. The legislation, aimed at naming and shaming Russian officials involved in human rights abuses, has infuriated much of the Russian political class.
The most important yet overlooked aspect of the current situation, however, may be the cynicism and casual indifference that Putin has displayed toward the U.S.-Russian relationship in the face of his much bigger problems at home. At the moment, Putin appears to be preoccupied by the political mess created by his decision to switch jobs with Medvedev and the badly flawed Duma elections last December. He also must contend with the ripple effects of the eurozone drama and global economic slowdown, which together have contributed to a 20 percent decline in global oil prices over the past two months alone.
Against this backdrop, the ups and downs of relations with Washington may be little more than a distraction from the more urgent challenge of restoring the aura of invulnerability and bezal'ternativnost' (the lack of any alternative) that bolstered Putin's authority during his first 12 years in power. Already, he seems to have fallen back on the tried-and-true formula of portraying himself as the protector of a Fortress Russia beset by imaginary foreign enemies and spies. This gambit has long helped the Kremlin cultivate support from average citizens and build up the regime's legitimacy.
The chief beneficiaries of Putin's rule -- the increasingly affluent and middle-class residents of places like Moscow -- show no signs of muffling their anger about his return to the Kremlin despite an ongoing crackdown on political dissent. Still, Putin knows how to cater to the two-thirds of the Russian electorate that voted for him in March and reside primarily in Russia's smaller cities and countryside. He may find it hard to resist the temptation to play upon their worst fears and anti-Western stereotypes. Sacrificing the past several years of dramatic improvement in the U.S.-Russian relationship may seem like a small price to pay if it breathes new life and legitimacy into his rule.