Forget the nuke deal, forget the speech, forget even the Russians’ lack of interest in Michelle: The real surprise of President Obama’s trip to Moscow this week was that he spent most of his time talking to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and took only a couple of hours to pay a courtesy call on the Russian prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin.
Almost anywhere else in the world, this sort of thing would be a matter of protocol. Generally speaking, the American head of state spends most of his time with other heads of state when traveling abroad. Exceptions are made for those countries whose heads of state are monarchs or some other figurehead, in which case our president pays a courtesy call and then hangs around with the chancellor or prime minister. If Obama were following that pattern in Russia, he would have spent most of his time with Putin.
Yes, Medvedev is the president and, yes, the Russian constitution gives the president the lion’s share of power. But ever since his profoundly undemocratic election last year (following his selection by Putin and an orchestrated parody of a campaign), it has been abundantly clear that the Russian president is not in charge. After the invasion of Georgia last August, it was Putin, not Medvedev, who appeared on television and negotiated behind the scenes. And during the Ukrainian gas crisis this winter it was Putin, not Medvedev, who spoke for Russia. Those who have watched the two men together generally come away impressed by Medvedev’s exceptional deference to the prime minister. Someone who took part in a meeting with them some months ago told me afterward that Putin did all the talking while Medvedev took notes.
In recent months, Medvedev has chosen to play a kind of “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop,” giving an interview to the last remaining opposition newspaper; saying nice things about democracy and electoral reform; even smiling, on occasion, in photographs with foreign leaders. But none of this has resulted in profound changes in foreign policy, economic policy or human rights, leaving most observers inside and outside the country to assume that Medvedev is playing his part in an elaborate public relations campaign.
The decision to focus the American president’s visit on Medvedev instead of Putin could therefore be what British civil servants call “very brave,” not least because if you don’t talk to the person who’s really in charge, you can’t expect to get much done. As I understand it, this decision was made at least partly on pragmatic grounds: Meetings with Putin nowadays tend to turn into extended rants about Russia’s grievances (this week’s breakfast between Putin and Obama apparently being no exception), which doesn’t leave much time to pursue productive conversation. Putin wasn’t going to get into the subject of Russia’s recent military maneuvering on the Georgian border (thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks began exercising there at the end of June), and Medvedev can’t do anything about it anyway, so the Obama administration seems to have figured that there wasn’t much point in dealing with the issue. Instead, it dealt with less controversial subjects — such as nuclear arms reductions (which were mostly going to happen anyway) and rights for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan to fly over Russian areas (nice, apparently, but not crucial) — that Medvedev might actually be able to sort out.
The upside of this policy is that it might make Medvedev more powerful, though this is a rather naive and forlorn hope. The downside is that Putin might take offense at being ignored. But given that Putin appears to be generally offended all the time, no matter how often or how sweetly U.S. presidents talk to him, this latter concern seems rather beside the point.
In any case, this sort of chilly calculation is preferable to the carefully staged walks in the woods, bear hugs and holiday outings that characterized the Clinton-Yeltsin and Bush-Putin relationships. It also beats the lame “let’s press the reset button with Russia” metaphor that the Obama administration was using in its first few months in office. It’s absolutely true that the worst problems were not resolved this week and that everything hard — from Georgia to missile defense to Iran — has been left aside until further notice. But at least no one is pretending otherwise.