Guest Opinion: Seeking clues in Putin’s speech

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dec. 2
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin annual State of the Nation address, delivered at the Kremlin Thursday, was rather restrained for him. But it did offer some clues to his idea of relations with the new administration in Washington.

Putin has no real political problems at home, his United Russia party having won a constitutional majority in the Duma, the two-house Russian parliament, in elections earlier this year. If he has any problems as Russia’s leader, they are economic. Energy amounted to 71 percent of Russia’s exports last year and world oil prices have been weak, knocking a big hole in Russia’s budget. It is hard to gauge how much damage has been done to Russia by economic sanctions imposed on it as a result of its activities in Ukraine, but they haven’t helped. It has also been waging an expensive war in Syria.

The Organization of the Petroleum Export Countries has just announced a 3 percent cut in production to begin Jan. 1 to attempt to push prices up. Russia is not a member of OPEC but has indicated its intention to follow suit in the effort, which could improve its economic situation.

Most interesting to Americans is what Putin said about his international relations posture, given that President-elect Donald Trump is in the midst of putting together his foreign affairs and national security teams. He and Trump talked by phone Nov. 14. Putin in his address stated a desire to mend U.S.-Russian relations, fractured over Ukraine and by a lack of coordination in the two countries’ approach to the war in Syria, in spite of regular meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov. Putin indicated that he saw the principal point of policy convergence as combating terrorism. That means different things to the two countries, but is not a bad starting point.

Another word by Putin about relations with the United States stood out: “equality.” Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, successor regimes have smarted at any indication that the United States considered that it had won the Cold War, or that Russia’s status had sunk substantially on a global basis. In that same column, Russia has also been working on improving its relations with China, to make the same “great power” point and to get under America’s skin.

Trump, as a new force in American politics and one who already has direct and indirect ties to Russia (even if it didn’t in fact try to cook the U.S. 2016 elections), will be in a strong position to carry out a useful reset in U.S.-Russian relations. That is needed in a number of areas, such as to preserve the climate change and Iran deals, and to keep nuclear warfare in its cage. Putin used his speech to state Russia’s interests. He also appears to grasp the virtues of an improved relationship with America. Time and actual developments, including in Syria and Eastern Europe, will tell.