From a historical perspective, America’s attitude to a Russian leader appears to depend primarily on Russia’s willingness to implement nuclear disarmament and support nuclear non-proliferation.

U.S. Senator John McCain responds to Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

The op-ed article by Senator John McCain in is interesting for at least two reasons. Most importantly, it was the first time in the past twenty years when a prominent American politician openly urged Russians to accept regime change. (Until now, American politicians used the slogan "Putin's overthrow” mainly for domestic consumption).  

Secondly, the op-ed article of McCain coincides with an important trend in contemporary U.S. foreign policy: the sharp rejection of Vladimir Putin. Since late 2011, the American political establishment has made relations with Russia dependent on relations with its leader. It is almost impossible to find a publication in U.S. mass media where the Russian president is presented in ​​a positive or neutral manner.

While Senator McCain's position is more radical, it coincides with the position of President Barack Obama. The White House had made it clear, albeit indirectly at times, that it does not recognize the legitimacy of the 2012 Russian presidential election. During the last Russian parliamentary elections in 2011, the Obama administration noted potential irregularities.

In March 2012, the U.S. State Department echoed concerns expressed by the OSCE about “the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the biased use of government resources and procedural irregularities on election day." On May 24, 2012, the Federal Court for the District of Columbia named as persona non grata Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation.

Over the next year, there was not a single working meeting between the presidents of Russia and the USA. Both sides, under one pretext or another, canceled planned summits. There was a similar situation during the "interregnum time" in the USSR during the first half of the 1980s, but at that time, it was caused by the poor health condition of the Soviet leaders.

This policy of canceling summits is unprecedented in the relationship between Moscow and Washington. After the Second World War, the American elite eventually adapted to any Soviet or Russian leader. The U.S. media could portray Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, or Yeltsin in the most negative light. However, at the practical political level, this rule was not applied and Washington led a working dialogue with any Soviet or Russian leader. This unwritten rule was in force during the period of the first two presidencies of Vladimir Putin, too.

Currently, U.S. diplomacy rejects dialogue with the current Russian leader and begins to justify any action with regard to Russia by pointing to the "Putin factor." For the first time in modern history, the White House makes Russian-American relations dependent on its relation with the Russian leader.

It seems that the rejection of the figure of Vladimir Putin represents a serious turning point in Russian-U.S. relations. It's not just that Americans do not accept “authoritarian tendencies" in Russia. In practice, the White House regularly enters into cooperation with authoritarian regimes when and where it is consistent with U.S. interests. (It is enough to recall the alliance between Richard Nixon's administration and China of Mao Tse-tung in 1972). Hostility to Vladimir Putin is only part of the rejection of the Russian political system by the entire American political establishment, by both Republicans and Democrats.

In 1992, George W. Bush came to the conclusion that the Cold War ended satisfactory. Since then, Russia has maintained its Soviet-era military capacity (namely, its nuclear capacity) and is still the only country in the world capable of technically destroying the United States. Even with the rise of nations such as China and India, Russia remains the only country in the world able to wage war with the United States on the basis of comparable conventional weapons.

In this context, a priority for the United States remains the elimination of Russia's strategic nuclear potential as well as a guarantee of the impossibility of its rapid recovery. In 1995, the Clinton Administration embraced the concept of "mutual assured safety" - the preservation of America’s potential to reconstruct its nuclear capacity in the event of the failure of Russian democratic reforms.

After 1997, the U.S. "National Security Strategy " and " Nuclear Posture Review " established as a priority the containment of the threat from Russian strategic nuclear forces. Later, the Obama Administration viewed the "Reset" policy as a way to negotiate the radical reduction of Russia's strategic nuclear potential.

In this sense, the attitude of the American elite to a Russian leader depends primarily on Russia’s implementation of nuclear disarmament. The White House supported Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, during the period of implementation of START I (1991) and the signing of START II ( 1993), which provided for the elimination of Russian heavy ICBMs.

The administration of George W. Bush supported Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s, during the period of U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty and the signing of SORT, which retained the right of both parties to the existence of a "potential of reconstruction." Dmitry Medvedev had a reputation as a "liberal politician" in the U.S. media at the end of 2000s, during the period of the signing of START III.

However, after the failure of U.S. disarmament initiatives, Washington started to view Russian politicians in a negative light. After 1995, when the ratification of START II had been postponed indefinitely, the theme of "the friendship of Boris and Bill” departed from the lexicon of the American media.

Publication of articles hinting at "the ascent of authoritarianism in Russia" started to become popular in 2004, when Moscow launched a program of modernization of its strategic nuclear forces. The arguments about the "weakness" of Dmitry Medvedev  appeared in the middle of 2010, at the time of the failure of negotiations about missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons.

In short, the negative reaction to President Putin is Washington’s rejection of a Russian leader who refuses to accept unilateral disarmament.

Russia officially denied American leadership of the global political system in the spring of 1997, when it voiced its support for the concept of a "multipolar” world. In practice, Moscow acted on the principle of, "If it is possible for the USA, then it is possible for Russia, too."

But in 2012, the Kremlin took two steps that the American establishment found to be a real challenge. The first was the adoption of the "Dima Yakovlev Law," which postulated the possibility of imposing sanctions against the United States. The second was taking the initiative to seize chemical weapons in Syria.

The Kremlin has thus demonstrated that Washington does not recognize the right to impose sanctions against certain countries or pursue a policy of “imposed disarmament” unilaterally without its involvement. Both of these results have serious implications for the right of the U.S. to be the leader of the world political system. 

The article of John McCain is  just another warning to the Kremlin about American dissatisfaction with Russia. The demonstrative refusal of the American establishment to engage in dialogue with Vladimir Putin means that Washington is no longer interested in strategic arms talks, nuclear non-proliferation and anti-terrorism. It is unclear how exactly the White House will engage in dialogue with the Kremlin on practical issues.

Restoring dialogue appears to need some sort of crisis, in which each of them can showcase their strengths. This is an alarming sign, especially during a time when we are seeing the aggravation of regional conflicts around the world.