President Obama has made his first mistake in Russia even before he arrived in Moscow yesterday. His attempt to cast Vladimir Putin as yesterday’s man and to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and President Medvedev demonstrates a misreading of relations in the Kremlin.
Mr Medvedev is in office but not in power and whether he becomes President in more than name depends on Mr Putin’s support and intentions. Mr Medvedev may represent a more accommodating face of Russia but this is only because Mr Putin wants him to.
Mr Obama declared: “I think that it’s important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated . . . Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.” That suggests that Mr Medvedev’s outlook differs from that of his mentor despite a lack of evidence. Mr Putin is not known as a bad judge of character and he himself described his successor as “no less a Russian nationalist than I am”.
Mr Putin’s dominance was evident at the start of last year’s war in Georgia, when he directed operations in South Ossetia. Foreign relations are also the responsibility of the President. But Mr Putin has been an active globetrotter and does not hesitate to involve himself in policy in a way that would have been unthinkable for any of his prime ministers.
He told Japanese leaders during a recent visit that Tokyo would have to meet Moscow’s terms for a formal peace treaty ending the Second World War, adding that Mr Medvedev would raise the issue at next week’s G8 summit in Italy. Nobody would have dared dictate his presidential agenda for him. One Western diplomat told The Times that Mr Putin continued to hold 90 percent of power. Mr Obama’s decision to meet him is an admission that he holds sway and everyone from President Hu Jintao of China to European Union leaders make the same journey.
Mr Medvedev’s utterances about enforcing the rule of law remain just that — and are tainted by the blatantly rigged manner of his election. Mr Obama will ignore that detail in talking up their “very good relationship”. But if Mr Putin decides to return to the presidency in 2012 — and it is his decision — then Mr Obama will be dealing directly by the end of his first term with a man he has dismissed.
He may have played into Mr Putin’s hands. Despite the old pals’ act with George W. Bush, the Kremlin became increasingly anti-American over NATO expansion, missile defence in Eastern Europe, and Washington’s support for pro-Western leaders in Georgia and Ukraine.
Mr Obama’s pledge to press the reset button in relations was seen by Moscow as confirmation that Russia was right all along. Russia did not offer to change its attitudes.
Unless the U.S. is preparing to abandon those policies, Mr Putin will feel justified in declaring that there is no sign of the new era. This would be a gift for the Kremlin as it struggles to decide how to deal with the phenomenon of a globally popular U.S. president after Mr Bush.
It would allow Mr Putin to pursue Moscow’s strategic goal of dividing Europe from the U.S. by casting America as unreasonable over Russian security concerns, and then using energy politics to keep Europe divided against itself.
Mr Obama is coming to the table like a card sharp to a casino, ready to charm his hosts and pull aces from his sleeve to win support for crucial objectives in Afghanistan and Iran. But Russia is a land of chess players, cautious and calculating. Mr Putin does not respond to charm — and he has just closed Russia’s casinos.