In recent weeks, pundits, diplomats and assorted foreign policy wonks have started raising the alarm on U.S.-Russia relations, with the Obama administration's much-trumpeted "reset" seeming to be increasingly under threat. A recent travel ban by the U.S. State Department on certain Russian officials believed to be involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky elicited an angry response from Moscow threatening cooperation in areas ranging from Afghanistan to North Korea. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has started grousing about U.S. missile defense plans again. And all of this comes against a backdrop of increasing criticism from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his factional supporters in the Russian government about U.S. policy in Libya and Syria. Predictably, this has resulted in a stream of op-eds in the Western press raising the specter of a "new Cold War."
So is the concern justified?
In a word, no. There has been no major break in U.S.-Russian relations, nor is one likely. What we are seeing is yet another one of Russia's periodic succession crises in the run-up to next year's presidential election. As Russia is in functional terms a nondemocratic state, there is no effective and broadly accepted mechanism for ensuring an orderly transfer of power, and arguably there hasn't been one since the days of the tsar. The selection and installation of a new ruler tends to be a perilous affair for everyone involved. It also tends to make Russian foreign policy highly reactive and aggressive until the crisis passes.
To understand why this is, we first need to examine how the Russian regime actually operates. Though the idea has taken hold in much of the Western press that the Russian state can be reduced to Putin, Russia's leadership is actually a collection of various elite interest groups, often referred to as "clans." The role of the national leader is to ensure a rough balance of power among the clans and to keep open conflict from breaking out. This presents an obvious problem when the time comes to change the national leader. Since the new leader must come from within the current elite, he or she will already be a member of an established clan. That raises the risk that the new boss will use his position to benefit his own clan rather than to maintain the balance of power among them all. As the stakes rise, nerves fray and intra-elite conflict becomes more likely.
This leads to a more confrontational foreign policy for two key reasons. First, during a domestic crisis, the regime is at its weakest, and as a result it seeks to keep the influence of external actors to an absolute minimum by scaring them away. Think of a cat giving birth: It screeches and howls and spits to scare off other predators, all in an effort to hide the fact that it is momentarily powerless to defend itself. Similarly, during a succession crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry makes alarming noises in order to put the West on the defensive while the Kremlin sorts out its internal affairs.
But there is another and admittedly more worrying reason for this phenomenon. When the clans start to fight one another, there are few restrictions on either the site of battle or the weapons employed. For the siloviki clans -- members and former members of the security services -- in particular, political struggles are often a matter of life and death. Interfering with foreign policy can be a potent weapon: By creating a tense and even hostile international environment, clan members can tilt the scales in favor of conservatism, a hard-line leadership and preservation of the status quo.
The last such crisis occurred in 2007, as Putin prepared to make way for President Dmitry Medvedev. At that time, a siloviki war broke out in Russia, leading to several mysterious deaths. Furthermore, the succession crisis is the most plausible explanation for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. By this argument, elements in the regime wanted to either display their capabilities for mischief-making to the various leadership contenders or else create a crisis that forced Putin to stay in a position of power. Why else would the Russian security services use polonium to kill Litvinenko, thereby leaving a radioactive trail leading right back to the Kremlin, when they have access to an array of lethal and nearly untraceable poisons?
Luckily, the current impasse is more of a mini-crisis. The ruling tandem of Putin and Medvedev has managed to keep a fairly tight rein on power, and the smart money remains on Medvedev remaining as president with Putin continuing as prime minister. There is still an element of uncertainty though. The caricature of Medvedev as "Putin's puppet" has always been inaccurate, and as president Medvedev has gained leverage to push both a foreign and domestic agenda that has discomfited his political opponents. Many hardliners would dearly love to see Medvedev out and Putin back in as unrivaled leader of the Russian political elite.
The next few months will therefore be rough ones for Russia's relations with the West. But when the dust settles and the official candidate -- and therefore winner -- of the 2012 presidential election becomes clear, things should settle down just as quickly as they have recently flared up. In the meantime, Europe and the U.S. should try to react as little as possible and avoid doing any lasting damage that can't be easily repaired.
For Russia, the only long-term solution is to make the ballot box the final arbiter of political competition. Until that happens, we can look forward to more of the same each time Russia faces uncertainty about leadership transitions.
Daragh McDowell is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His research is primarily focused on Russian post-Soviet foreign policy, but he also writes on European domestic and international affairs. He is a native and current resident of Dublin, Ireland.