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Russia Ready for Realpolitik?

Walter Russell Mead

Putin’s once-close aide, Sergey Ivanov, has a message for the United States:

“We are always ready for Realpolitik,” Sergei Ivanov, a member of Mr Putin’s security council, told the FT. In his first interview to international media since stepping down as presidential chief of staff in August, Mr Ivanov said the Russian leadership had been “insulted” by anti-Russian rhetoric during the US election, but counted on American pragmatism to prevail.

“We are prepared for that. We just have to wait until the end of the election campaign. We have to wait a couple more weeks, we just have to be patient.”

Ivanov was unceremoniously demoted to “ecology minister” in August amid a broader reshuffle within the Kremlin’s power structures, so it’s not exactly clear how much he “speaks” for the Putin regime any more. But even if Ivanov still has the emperor’s ear, as it were, there is no reason to think of this as anything other the usual rhetoric surrounding Kremlin moves: the head fake and the body slam are two of Putin’s favorite maneuvers—with one arm a handshake, with the other a sucker punch to the gut. Obama has seen this pattern many times—protestations of friendship and peaceable intentions followed up by a kick in the pants.

But the truth is that Russia is always ready for Realpolitik; under Putin that is all it understands. Fair enough—the next U.S. President should meet Russia in a businesslike way to see where the two countries have common interests that they can work on together. But some of the Realpolitik Russia won’t like; the next U.S. President needs to redress the balance that Putin has challenged, and administer some sharp and even painful checks to Russia just to re-establish some boundaries. Putin has gotten into a habit of contempt for American leaders and that’s a habit our next president will have to break him of. Russia is overextended and over-exposed; the next President needs to look at a range of targets of opportunity and select an appropriate time and place to send the message that it doesn’t pay to fool around with the United States of America.

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