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Analysis & Opinion
22.01.10 Is Putin Sabotaging Medvedev’s Initiatives?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Kolesnikov, Alexandre Strokanov

It has recently been suggested that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acts as the biggest spoiler of President Dmitry Medvedev’s foreign policy initiatives (see David Kramer, “Putin is Medvedev’s Biggest Spoiler”, Moscow Times, January 13, 2010). Indeed, as David Kramer points out, the case could be made that Putin, for reasons better known to him, regularly interferes at key junctures to upset or altogether derail Medvedev’s key foreign policy initiatives. Is this assessment fair? Would this be an indication of Putin’s continued strong interest in seeking another presidential term in 2012? Where does the buck stop in Moscow on international issues?

Kramer writes that last June “Putin stunned Medvedev and leaders in the West by announcing a change in Russia's approach to pursuing membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), just when everyone thought that Russia was about to cross the WTO finish line. Putin pulled the rug out from under Medvedev by announcing that Russia would seek membership in the WTO only in union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Putin's announcement came as a complete surprise to everyone, including those in his own government, and derailed a deal that finally had seemed to be within reach of Russia after many years of trying.”

“The latest problems arose following a meeting between Medvedev and Obama in Copenhagen on December 18,” Kramer continues. “They announced that their negotiators were close to reaching agreement on the START replacement treaty. Despite last-minute snags and sticking points over inspections and telemetry, both sides expected to finalize the agreement early in 2010 - that is, until Putin opened his mouth on December 29 while on a visit to Vladivostok. Asked by a journalist to name the biggest obstacle to reaching agreement on the arms control treaty, Putin responded, ‘the problem is that our American partners are building an anti-missile shield and we are not building one’.”

Kramer thus draws the conclusion that “depriving Medvedev of victories seems to have become an objective for Putin. This is a reflection of Putin’s deep sense of insecurity and manifests itself when he competes with Medvedev for global attention and glory.”

Kramer also warns the Barack Obama administration against making a huge mistake of choosing “between Medvedev and Putin as ‘most-favored negotiating partner,’ or trying to artificially build up Medvedev politically as the Russian leader ‘more amenable to improving relations’.”

Is this assessment fair? Is Putin really jealous of Medvedev and seeking to deprive the latter of opportunities to emerge as a viable world leader, while bolstering his own domestic standing with foreign policy successes? Would this be an indication of Putin’s continued strong interest in seeking another presidential term in 2012? What does this tell us about the workings of Russian foreign policy? Where does the buck stop in Moscow on international issues? Does this increase uncertainty over Moscow’s foreign policy initiatives and actions? How does it affect Russia’s image abroad?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Indeed, it seems as if Putin (as well as his principal subordinates and beneficiaries) is deliberately undermining Medvedev’s foreign policy initiatives, as well as many of his domestic programs. Putin probably believes that he cannot allow Medvedev to emerge as a legitimate power broker and a genuine national leader, who is prepared to lead the country out of its current malaise/crisis, if the former president is to regain his office and stature.

As David Kramer keenly recognizes, prime minister Putin (like the pre-Mikhail Gorbachev Soviet leadership, and the current rulers in Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela) understands that if most people believe that there is a real external threat to the nation, and they are not used to participating in their country’s political process, they will tolerate deprivations of their freedoms, low standards of living (from a relative perspective), and the absence of a real safety net.

It is difficult to believe that an individual as smart as Putin could possibly believe that the United States’ installation of a limited missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland poses a genuine military threat. Putin's preconditions for Russia’s joining the WTO might be motivated by a desire to show the importance he attaches to Russian-Kazakhstani relations, but with respect to Belarus, he might simply want to derail the WTO accession process unless he gains greater concessions.

One should not be mislead by the recent growth on the Russian Trading System (RTS) stock exchange as a sign of Russian economic health. There is a difference between price and value. The game being played by some is to drive Russia’s stock prices up before liquidating their holdings and moving their profits offshore. The Russian economy is in trouble and Putin cannot claim credit for past successes while disclaiming responsibility for the present situation.
U.S. president Obama’s foreign policy team hopes that it can establish a cooperative relationship with president Medvedev – an individual without one foot in the Cold War. While there are many capable analysts/commentators on the political dynamics in Russia who believe that manifestations of a Medvedev/Putin split on policy issues is merely a smokescreen, it is difficult to believe that, given the extent to which the president and the prime minister differ on key issues.

Putin’s and Medvedev’s different interpretations of the country’s past lead to a debate over Russia’s future. When Medvedev discusses the need to turn state-controlled enterprises into joint stock companies, prohibiting senior government officials from holding sinecures where they receive huge salaries in large government-controlled companies (even though individuals within the state service are prohibited from engaging in entrepreneurial activities), and the reasons his anti-corruption efforts have not yielded the results he had hoped, president Medvedev is making not very veiled criticisms of Putin.

Thus, it is understandable that Putin should feel increasingly insecure. He could be losing the support of those who have been his strongest backers. The power vertical seems not to have survived: power is devolving into the hands of regional leaders. Without a political explosion, change in Russia must come from within. Prime minister Putin does not want members of the Russian political and economic elite to seriously entertain the idea once coined by Svetlana Medvedeva in an interview with an Italian journalist, that the time has come when her husband should cease being president in name only.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

Certainly, the assessment made by David J. Kramer in his article “Putin is Medvedev’s Biggest Spoiler” has nothing to do with reality and is just another example of a mistaken approach to see Putin and Medvedev as two politicians who represent absolutely different directions of Russian foreign policy. For every reasonable analyst, it is quite obvious that Medvedev and Putin are two sides of the same coin, called the Kremlin.

Kramer’s assertion that “depriving Medvedev of victories seems to have become an objective for Putin. This is a reflection of Putin’s deep sense of insecurity …” is just plain wrong. It could be explained by a lack of understanding of Russia by the author, although, Kramer was a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Russia in the previous administration in the White House.

In reality, Putin does not need to be jealous of Medvedev, because his rating in the country remains very strong and above the ratings of the current president. In the minds of most Russians, Putin is still the unquestionable leader of the “tandem,” and the remaining two years before the next presidential elections are unlikely to change this situation.
It is also quite obvious that Putin never abandoned his interest in seeking another presidential term in 2012, but it does not necessarily mean that he certainly will run in the elections. The question of who will be the next president won't be decided until 2011 and it will be the result of a complex and uneasy agreement within the Russian elite, considering the circumstances in Russia itself and around the world, rather than the simple personal wish of Putin or Medvedev.

Those two cases that are presented in Kramer’s article have not so much to do with Putin-Medvedev relations as with Russian foreign policy objectives in general. Let’s consider the first case, which is the WTO. Actually, the idea voiced by Vladimir Putin about joining the WTO together with Belarus and Kazakhstan is a good one. First of all, it shows that in the eyes of the Kremlin, a working Customs Union takes priority over Russia’s membership in the WTO.

On other hand, as informed observers remember, Medvedev in his own words said that "if it weren't for the highly cautious U.S. policy on Russia's WTO accession, and bluntly speaking, if it weren't for the blocking by the United States, we would have been there long ago." Additionally, we should not forget the Georgia factor and the potential veto to Russia’s joining the WTO from Tbilisi, although the key to this again is still in Washington. That is why it is really important for the Kremlin to act in accord with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and in a way to use them as locomotives that will bring the whole train of these three together into the WTO.

The second case is about the START agreement, presented with the same misunderstanding. In reality, it is obvious that both Russian leaders want this agreement to be signed and ratified. President Medvedev in his words always stresses the importance of the agreement, as well as the gradual progress achieved through the negotiations. He also warns that ratification should happen in synchrony with the United States. At the same time, prime minister Putin simply points at issues that remain to be discussed and resolved through mutual compromises. However, it does not mean that they contradict each other. Just the opposite, with each of them playing their own roles but directed to the same goal - Russian national interests. The interests that the United States still has to recognize if it wants really productive relations with Russia.

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:

The difference in foreign policy approaches between Medvedev and Putin is a difference between an informed idealist and an informed pragmatist, who both strive to restore Russia’s greatness. This difference permeates all aspects of policy, not only foreign policy.

Both men appear to have the same or largely similar foreign policy approaches to Europe, the Former Soviet Union, China, South America and the rest of the world, except the United States. Putin views the United States as a “wolf” whose appetite can only be tempered by strength, no more illusions, thank you. Medvedev seems to believe that the two countries, one being fundamentally an embodiment of admirable liberal values and the other steadily aspiring to such, can overcome accumulated misunderstandings and become real 21st century partners. As you believe in common values and court your prospective partner, you try to trust him and make all sorts of goodwill gestures and concessions.

Since becoming a global player after World War I, the United States has consistently treated Russia as a geopolitical rival that must be contained to preserve the dominant American position. And whether it was the Tsar, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Boris Yeltsin or Dmitry Medvedev, this fundamental approach has never changed. Ideology, values, personal friendships or anything else played only secondary and never the decisive role in this calculation. Economic Siamese twins relations between the United States and China is the most glaring example of how geopolitics drives values and the other rhetoric into obscurity.

If you are an idealist, you persevere or experience a hard awakening. Medvedev is persevering. Putin, on the other hand, does not let him give out Russia for good words and tokens. In this respect he is a spoiler of Medvedev’s foreign policy. This is certainly the view from the other continent. From Russia, the view, at least to me, is quite different. Putin holds down the idealistic fervor of his prot?g?e and saves Russia from the “wolf.”

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

And so the quest for hypothetical friction between Medvedev and Putin continues. Of course, two alleged examples do not a pattern make – the “discoveries” of contradiction between the two men remind one of the “discoveries” of the face of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary in the toasting spot patterns of pancakes and tortillas, which are periodically reported by the lesser educated from the more superstitious regions of the Western Hemisphere.

The story of Russia’s accession to the WTO is well documented in the media. According to the media records, the narrative quoted by Frolov is not entirely accurate. The context and sequence of actions was as follows:

After quite a few years of essentially zero progress on negotiations of Russia’s entry to the WTO, Putin publicly articulated that Russia would postpone its entry into the WTO. Only after this pronouncement did many of the key WTO players begin making assertions that Russia was “walking away” from a “nearly done deal.” And a few weeks later it was Medvedev who reiterated Russia’s plans to eventually join the WTO. Thus, the actual sequence of pronouncements is the reverse of what is narrated by the referenced article, and the “near readiness” for Russia’s entry to the WTO was declared by non-Russian sources after Putin’s announcement – there was no evidence of such readiness before Putin’s statement. In fact, now –several months after the events – the WTO has still not admitted Russia as a member. So one must ask how Russia was “on the verge of joining the WTO” (a WTO partisans’ recent claim) before Putin’s declaration – if membership is still eluding it.

Thus, Putin did not “spoil” Medvedev on WTO membership: Putin spoke before Medvedev, not after. And Medvedev did not “spoil” Putin, either – he just reasserted that Russia intends to join the WTO, at some future point – which is a step that Putin did not reject in his earlier pronouncement.

In the example of the negotiations for a renewed START agreement, the public facts are that both Medvedev and Putin have commented on the complications of the process. Putin in Vladivostok reminded his audience of the known fact of American expanded plans for ABM coverage – a factor fully germane to strategic arms control (as demonstrated in earlier strategic weapon control treaties). And almost simultaneously, Medvedev noted the difficulty of current negotiations and pointed out Russia’s requirement of synchronization of ratifications of the new START by the national legislatures of the signatory countries – as a pre-condition for the implementation of the treaty by Russia. Again, the two statements by Medvedev and Putin do not contradict each other – they are complementary and refer to different aspects of a complex treaty, which is undergoing a fully expected, complex negotiating process.
Thus, the allegations of Putin as a “spoiler” of Medvedev do not appear to be supported by the examples provided, and two reported instances of alleged contradictions are not convincing, especially considering the inaccuracies in the narratives of the “evidence.”

Also, one must compare instances of alleged “contradictions” between the two gentlemen with the many more instances of genuine collaboration between them. The fact that such an objective comparison is not presented undermines the hypothesis and exposes a possible latent subjectivity of the original premise.

Neither Putin nor Medvedev are “spoilers” for their respective opposites. And the brown toast marks on that pancake are not an image of Mickey Mouse, imprinted by mysterious gods.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

There is no doubt that Putin and Putin's entourage are actively sabotaging many of Medvedev's foreign policy initiatives or conducting their own policies. Wherever one looks, arms control, Latin American and Far Eastern energy policy, the WTO, etc. we see Putin, Igor Sechin, et al blocking Medvedev's attempts to improve ties with the West, or actively seeking to worsen those ties, e.g. by scuttling the arms control treaty, calling for military bases in Latin America, abandoning the WTO for a Customs Union and always seeking to blame America for everything.
It should be clear that not only does this faction oppose improving ties with the West, they are also relying upon or deliberately fabricating worst-case scenarios and threat assessments. There is also little doubt that its “law enforcement structures” are participating in this rivalry, as shown by the military's support for the bases in Latin America that Sechin sought, complaints about arms control, and the intelligence services' fabricated threat assessments.

These trends highlight two of the fundamental lacuna in Russia's aborted democratization project, the failure to establish any kind of legal succession pattern by which one ruler succeeds anther or democratic control over these intelligence and military-police structures. Yeltsin's failures to do what needed to be done here left the way open for a recrudescence of those forces and the asphyxiation of democratizing trends in Russia, with the consequences we now see.

Anyone trying to make sense of contemporary Russian foreign policy must understand that it derives its modus operandi and psychology from this obsession with the concentration of power in a single hand, the idea of legal nihilism (without which Medvedev could not function either), and the accompanying belief that since Russian politics resembles the Mafia, the rest of the world relates to Russia in the same way that rivals relate to each other in the Kremlin.

Internalizing that lesson would be a great benefit to those of us who seek or purport to be experts on the system. Naturally, this rivalry renders Russian foreign policy even more unpredictable than it normally is, for nobody knows what the policy is today or what it will be tomorrow. But it is not a mistake for the Obama administration to deal primarily with Medvedev. After all, he has the formal authority to conduct foreign policy and we need not negotiate on the basis of Putin's agenda. Moreover, the administration can, if it should ever choose to do so, tell Moscow that it has reset relations and then refuse to make any unreciprocated concessions to Russia on Iran, arms control, the WTO, or the CIS. After all, it is Russia that is becoming weaker in the CIS and whose economy is in greater and more structural decline than is the United States. If anything, the rivalry in the Kremlin justifies taking a principled, tough, but forward-leaning U.S. posture. What it does not justify are concessions to Russia to win over Putin, whose policy is inveterately anti-American.
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