Obama's Kremlin Gambit

05/25/2011 01:35 pm ET
  • Brian Whitmore Senior Correspondent, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Well, I can't say that I saw this coming.

In an interview with the Associated Press that hit the wires on July 3, U.S. President Barack Obama dropped this little bombshell on the eve of his visit to Moscow:

I have developed a very good relationship with President Medvedev... But Prime Minister Putin still has a lot of sway in Russia, and I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understands that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated, that it's time to move forward in a different direction. I think Medvedev understands that.

I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new. And to the extent that we can provide him and the Russian people a clear sense that the U.S. is not seeking an antagonistic relationship but wants cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, fighting terrorism, energy issues, that we'll end up having a stronger partner overall in this process.

Obama's comments appear calibrated to drive a wedge right down the middle of the Russian establishment. It's a calculated risk that just might work.

The president's remarks came at a time when the Moscow elite is more divided than it has been in nearly a decade, with different factions drawing diametrically opposed lessons from the deepening economic crisis.

Some are arguing that the economic nosedive has exposed Putin's social contract -- under which Russians give up a measure of freedom in exchange for prosperity -- as hollow. They are urging political liberalization and a diversification of the economy away from its dangerous dependence on energy exports.

The most vocal advocates of this position are establishment intellectuals like Igor Yurgens, chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Development, a think tank with close ties to Medvedev, and Yevgeny Gontmakher, director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

They appear to have at least the tacit support of government technocrats like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina.

Others -- like the powerful Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the informal leader of the so-called "siloviki" clan of security-service veterans, and first deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's informal ideologist -- are furiously trying to maintain the status quo. They have been supported by their own crop of public intellectuals like the pro-Putin political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky.

Obama's comments came just a day after Boris Nemtsov, one of the founders of the opposition group Solidarity, said the following at a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York:

If Obama will show that, yes, Russia has a president and his name is Medvedev, it will be very, very nice for everybody. I can tell you why [this is important] for Solidarity ...

Medvedev is not Putin. He is different. He's young; He has no mentality of the Cold War, of course, because he's just 44. He graduated the university when [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev started perestroika in 1985. He has no KGB experience, which is great, and he has experience in private sector, which is very important.

And I believe that -- if he will finally take power, we have a chance to come back to liberalization, to democratization or, I can say, perestroika number two...

His main problem, unfortunately, is that he's weak. I don't know [if it is] possible to become stronger just after a few meetings with Obama. I don't know. But if he will help him to take power, it will be very important strategically, because if you look at Obama's background and his history, and Medvedev, the new person, it's easier for new guys to start from the beginning.

Obama is also making explicit overtures to Russia's pro-democratic forces. He has given an interview to the opposition newspaper "Novaya gazeta" that is due appear on newsstands on July 6, just as he arrives in Moscow. He is scheduled to meet with civil society groups and human rights activists on July 7. And there are even rumors circulating in Moscow, albeit unconfirmed, that he may meet with leading opposition figure Garry Kasparov.

Speaking to reporters this week, Michael McFaul, the White House National Security Council's senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, said Obama is seeking to establish "a direct relationship with the Russian people" -- not just with the government:

As we reset relations with the Russian government, we also want to reset relations with Russian society.... The idea here is that this is not 1974, this is not where we just go over and do an arms control agreement with the Soviets, but that we have a multidimensional relationship with the Russian government and the Russian people.

In run-up to Obama's Moscow visit, a lively debate emerged among Russia watchers about the president's "reset" with Russia -- and what clues we could take away from Obama's performance on Iran.

Some argued that Obama's softer, pragmatic approach would only encourage Russia's more retrograde elements. According to this argument, Obama's cautious reaction to the political upheaval in Iran set the precedent that bad behavior will go unpunished.

Others argued that the U.S. president is playing a sophisticated long-term game with both Tehran and Moscow. Advocates of this position say Obama's opening to Iran, his offer of talks and improved relations, helped widen existing cracks among the elite in Tehran and expose the fragility of what earlier appeared to be a monolithic and static political system.

Obama appears to be making a similar gambit with Russia.

Cross Posted at RFE/RL's The Power Vertical

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