Giving Putin His Due

Sidelining the Russian prime minister will do little to help President Dmitry Medvedev -- or the White House.

Jamie Fly and Gary Schmitt are right to ask questions about the role that the relationship between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plays in U.S. policy toward Russia and U.S.-Russian relations. But the administration's greatest failing thus far in working with Moscow is not the relationship between Obama and Medvedev; it's between Obama and Vladimir Putin.

The prime minister "is still calling the shots" in Russia, as Fly and Schmitt write, and it is difficult to envision how the United States can hope to improve relations with Russia in a sustainable way without Putin on board. Putin's public listing of Moscow's grievances as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked on last week clearly suggested that he isn't.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears to have made scant effort to engage the prime minister. Obama's statement that Putin had "one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new" while en route to Moscow for his first summit there in July 2009 didn't help, especially when coupled with his more positive statements about Medvedev. The White House had already passed up an opportunity for dinner with Putin during the trip so that the president could eat with his family in a restaurant. So at their breakfast meeting the following morning, Putin complained for 45 minutes about American policy. The commission announced at the summit to manage U.S.-Russian relations had no role for Russia's prime minister, and no other mechanism seems to exist.

This isn't just a White House problem. Secretary Clinton (who said that Putin "doesn't have a soul" when campaigning for president, prompting Putin to reply in kind that "at a minimum, a state official must at least have a head") reportedly didn't try to coordinate her October 2009 trip to Russia with Putin's office and as a result didn't see him -- he went to China to sign a major energy deal instead. Just a few weeks later, when asked by Tom Brokaw whether she would prefer to see former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in power in Russia rather than Putin, Clinton said, "I kind of like President Medvedev myself," and then praised Medvedev's statements on human rights and democracy.

The administration may argue, correctly, that Medvedev is the elected president of Russia, that Putin had something to do with bringing Medvedev into that role, and that it's most appropriate for the two presidents to work together. The administration may also argue that the Russian Constitution clearly gives the president control over foreign-policy -- though hopefully the lawyers in the U.S. government (starting with Obama) would recognize the difference between de jure and de facto authority in Moscow today. And, of course, the administration may argue that Medvedev's statements are more attractive than Putin's and that he represents a new generation of leaders with new aspirations.

But none of this explains what seem to be almost gratuitous slaps at Putin. What logic there is in trying to strengthen Medvedev's role is automatically and immediately undercut by coupling efforts to work with and praise the president with public criticism of and diminished attention to his powerful prime minister. This is the true flaw in the Obama administration's policy toward Russia.

The danger in this policy is twofold. First, emphasizing Medvedev while appearing to undermine Putin is unlikely to improve U.S.-Russian relations or to get America what it needs and wants from Moscow. Medvedev can sign a new arms-control treaty, but it is the Russian State Duma that must ratify it. The Duma is weak and subject to considerable influence from the executive branch; however, it is Putin, not Medvedev, who wields that influence through his leadership of the United Russia party that dominates the legislature. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov's statement that the body might not ratify a new treaty if it does not link arms control to missile defense could be viewed as a warning not only to the United States but also to Medvedev. Implementing any Iran sanctions that Medvedev might accept would likewise fall to Putin.

Second, criticizing Putin -- notwithstanding his faults -- won't help Medvedev and actually may hurt him. Even if one accepts that Medvedev would be preferable to Putin as Russia's top leader -- uncertain in view of Fly and Schmitt's fair assessment that the president's talk is so far not much more than talk -- Medvedev's future still depends heavily on his prime minister. If Putin announced tomorrow that he has firmly decided to run for president in 2012, Medvedev would stand little chance in that election and would have even less influence between now and then. That Putin has not made this simple statement creates political space for Medvedev and others -- but giving the impression that Washington is trying to ease Putin out could quickly obliterate it if he changes his mind.

It is very tempting in the capital of the sole superpower to think that we Americans can stage-manage domestic politics in other countries to suit their preferences. Unfortunately, whether in Russia, Iran, or elsewhere, not everyone reacts to U.S. statements and actions the way Americans think they should. There may be a case for trying to bolster Medvedev, but doing it too publicly and at Putin's obvious expense could be quite costly to U.S. interests, especially if Putin returned to power resenting apparent U.S. attempts to facilitate his retirement. This is not endorsing Putin or his leadership; on the contrary, it is recognizing the realities of Russian politics. Washington-Moscow relations are complicated enough; entangling them in Russia's complex and unpredictable political system is a mistake.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


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