Belmont Club

Obama in Moscow

Tony Halpin of the Times Online puzzles over Barack Obama’s apparent attempt to drive a wedge between President Medvedev and former President Vladimir Putin. He is in Moscow to talk according to Reuters, in order to discuss arms cuts and Afghanistan. Halpin writes:

President Obama has made his first mistake in Russia even before he arrives in Moscow today. 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move forward with President Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated .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”.

It’s not such a hard puzzle to solve. The “wedge” is for American consumption only. For Barack Obama to sell any agreement he reaches with the Russians, he must portray today’s Russia as being led by “new men”, reasonable men, men perceived to be unlike Vladimir Putin. In this way he can say that ‘new page’ has been turned; and America is now dealing with ‘people we can trust’. Obama probably knows that Medvedev only represents “a more accommodating face of Russia … only because Mr Putin wants him to”. But it suits his book to present Medvedev’s face or at the very least to portray Russia as a battlefield between “moderates and neo-conservatives”. The wool being pulled over isn’t over the President’s eyes but someone else’s.

With the recent news that Russia has agreed to let the US supply forces in Aghanistan through Moscow-controlled territory, look for “deep cuts” and “stand downs” vis a vis Moscow. The Reuters article says Obama “will also meet business chiefs and listen to the country’s embattled democratic opposition. But he faces a harder task in trying to achieve his aim of a ‘reset’ in overall relations between Washington and Moscow.” It may be easier than he lets on.

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