Obama and Putin meet for breakfast at Putin’s Novo-Ogarevo residence.
The Obama Putin breakfast meal was served indoors on an open terrace, with some tables covered with blue, white and red tablecloths in the style of classic Pavlovsky Posad shawls.
The menu included smoked sturgeon with pancakes and cranberry sauce, eggs with black caviar and sour cream, and quail pelmeni, Russian dumplings filled with minced meat.
Homemade ice-cream and cherry kisel, a sweet sauce, were served for dessert.
Obama also got the opportunity to drink tea made from water boiled in a samovar, a traditional Russian boiler containing hot coals. A waiter in national dress, including a red embroidered tunic, used a leather riding boot to fan air through the coals to boil the water.
A folk ensemble played traditional Russian songs during the breakfast.
There’s kitsch, and … there’s this.
So, there’s an agreement on nuclear weapons cuts. Is that such a step of major importance today, when the once-terrifying prospect of all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States is of far less concern in the public mind (and rightly so, I think) than a stray North Korean or Iranian missile? Since the fall of Communism, disarmament has become a ritualistic ballet that mainly flatters the Russian ego because it makes Russia feel like a fellow superpower. (The cuts benefit Russia in other ways as well; its nuclear arsenal is badly in need of an upgrade, and the country can ill afford a new arms race.) Has Obama agreed to link stratetgic arms reductions to the issue of missile shield installations in Eastern Europe? Obama says no (and his chief Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, says no even more emphatically); Medvedev seems to think he has, because discussions of “defensive weapons” are to be included in the talks. There’s also a statement about “cooperation” on missile defense. Whether any of this is meaningful remains to be seen. Russian policy expert Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center writes that the way out of the impasse is for the U.S. to agree to a joint missile defense with Russia, a decicion from which Trenin says “the U.S. has little to lose” even if it ultimately doesn’t work out. The problem is that, as Trenin admits, Moscow does not want a joint ABM defense system if the U.S. also proceeds with missile shield installations in Eastern Europe. Dead end.
There is a deal to allow the transit of U.S. weapons and military personnel across Russian territory (and airspace) to Afghanistan to help the U.S. and NATO military effort there. As Russian military analyst Alexander Golts notes (Russian-language link), “While Moscow presented this as a concession, in reality it is obvious that the Americans’ war effort in Afghanistan ensures Russia’s security.” Golts believes that this deal was the only useful part of the Obama-Medvedev talks, otherwise no more meaningful than (in his colorful metaphor) the chatter of extras on a movie set who must maintain the background noise of conversation.
There was, however, an interesting reference to Georgia. Continue reading
My new RealClearPolitics.com column examines Obama’s upcoming trip and the debate between “realists” and “idealists” on Russia.
(And my other column today, in The Wall Street Journal, asks if Mr. Putin is going to Georgia. Again.)
The Obama visit should be interesting. Evidently, Obama is spending a lot of one-on-one time with Medvedev (who declares on his video blog today that “Today, we are united by the values of our civilization, the values of respect for human life and human rights and freedoms” — does he say this stuff with a straight face?) and a lot of time with “unofficial” activists. On Tuesday, he breakfasts with Putin. Obama’s remarks today suggest that his “narrative” for the Moscow trip is that he and Medvedev together will be leading their countries forward to cooperation and partnership, while Putin, who “still has a lot of sway” and keeps “one foot in the old ways of doing business”, needs to understand that the time of the old ways has passed. Sounds like Obama’s message to Putin is, more or less, “Move out of the way, buddy, time’s up.”
Chances are, Putin is not going to like this, particularly in conjunction with the fact that Obama goes straight from breakfast with Putin to a day of meetings with representatives of unofficial Russia. In EJ.ru, Alexander Golts writes that his conversations with “certain people who are involved in the [U.S.-Russian] negotiations in one way or another” have left with the impression that they are confident that Obama’s visit will be productive, but also extremely tense and nervous that something will go wrong. And that “something” has a name. According to Golts,
At one point, an impressively high-level diplomat blurted out, “What if Putin finally loses it completely and screws everything up?”
I go back and forth on how real or meaningful the rumored Putin-Medvedev rift really is, and to what extent Medvedev is really emerging as his own man (or a reformer). We may learn a lot next week.
Today’s New York Times has a harsh editorial castigating Moscow’s latest exercise in stupid self-assertion:
In a depressing sequel to its petty and destructive war against Georgia last summer, Russia has now cast a petty and destructive veto in the United Nations Security Council, compelling the abrupt withdrawal of 130 badly needed international military monitors from Georgia’s secessionist region of Abkhazia.
It was petty because Russia’s larger interest lies in calming, not stirring up, secessionist ambitions in the Caucasus, a violently fractured part of the world that includes other restive regions like Chechnya. And it was destructive because whatever hopes the Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists might still retain for a semblance of international legitimacy vanishes with the withdrawal of the United Nations mission.
Moscow’s heavy-handed meddling has isolated Abkhazia, and Russia. Only Russia and Nicaragua recognized the “independence” Abkhazia proclaimed after the Russian incursion last summer. This month Russia voted alone in the Security Council to evict the monitors.
They could have added that Russia suffered an embarrassing setback in its quest for recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia when former pal Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus took the first half a $500 million loan that was a tacit bribe for recognition, and then didn’t come through.
The Times is quite right that further destabilization and growth of separatism in the region would be detrimental to Russia more than anyone else; hardly a day goes by without deadly violence, including assassinations of high-level officials and military officers, in places like Ingushetia and Dagestan. But of course, for the Kremlin leadership, muscle-flexing and ego-tripping counts for a lot more than such practical considerations.
Meanwhile, Russia is planning large-scale military exercises near the Georgian border; not only will these exercises take place in “independent” Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but they are pretty clearly directed at Georgia — at the very least, to send a signal. Adrian Piontkovsky, writing on Grani.ru (Russian text), speculates that Russia may be preparing for Georgian War II.
While visiting the gallery of Russian artist Ilya Glazunov on his 79th birthday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looks at a painting of the legendary Russian hero, Prince Oleg, and remarks:
“His sword is a bit too short.”
In response, Mr. Glazunov promised to make it longer, and the National Leader gave himself a pat on the back for having a good eye for detail.
In Novaya Gazeta (alas, Russian only), the brilliant Dmitry Bykov comments, in hilarious verse, on the encounter between the artist and the prime minister (who also chided the Russian Orthodox Holy Martyrs Princes Boris and Gleb, depicted in another Glazunov painting, for submitting to martyrdom rather than defending the Motherland), and imagines other conversations with artists in which Putin might want to do something about the naked Bacchus.
Today marks Dmitry Medvedev’s first year in office. But is he President Medvedev or “President” Medvedev? Is there a harmonious “tandem” or a Putin/Medvedev rift?
I have a column on his tenure so far at RealClearPolitics.com. My conclusion:
So far, the difference between Medvedev and Putin is mainly a matter of style and tone. Will style become substance? Could Medvedev be a genuine reformer who must tread carefully because he is still hobbled by the presence of Putin and his faction? Is he an ambitious man who wants to free himself from his mentor’s shadow, and prepare the ground for a second term, by using a mostly cosmetic liberalism to build a power base? Will the rumored discord in the Putin/Medvedev “tandem” become a full-scale war of Kremlin “clans”? Or is Medvedev playing “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop,” primarily for Western consumption?
“Only time will tell” may be the tritest of conclusions. But in this case, it is the only one that seems fitting.
An interesting article on Medvedev’s liberal moves appeared in the “Russia Now” online supplement to The Daily Telegraph (UK), produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta — the official publication of the Russian government. In other words, this is what the Kremlin’s mouthpiece wants to tell an English-speaking audience.
Medvedev’s interview to Novaya Gazeta, in a rather stilted but readable translation, can be found on the newspaper’s English-language site. And here is Medvedev’s LiveJournal (seriously).
For those who read in Russian, some good expert opinions on Medvedev’s first year and the “tandemocracy” are offered here. For those who don’t read in Russian, here’s a translation of the most interesting quote.
The Washington Post reports that there may be trouble in the Kremlin’s two-tsar show. The signs: Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the revision of a Vladimir Putin-backed bill expanding the definition of treason; has reportedly prevented the Putin-sought sacking of an official who couldn’t control the protests in Vladivostok; and has met with Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, to express condolences on the murder of Novaya reporter Anastasia Baburova, shot dead along with human rights lawyer Stanivslav Markelov. (At the meeting, Medvedev told Muratov, whose paper has been harshly and often scathingly critical of the Kremlin, that “no one has to like” Novaya Gazeta, but it’s great that it exists and criticizes the government. This is in stark contrast to Putin’s attitude toward the 2006 murder of another Novaya Gazeta reporter, Anna Politkovskaya.)
In another interesting development, “one Russian official … said Putin and Medvedev recently decided that a note-taker should keep minutes of their discussions because ‘misunderstandings’ had arisen following past meetings.” (Putin: “But Dima! We agreed that you were just there for window-dressing and I’d still make all the decisions!” Medvedev: “Actually, Vova, that’s now how I remember it.”)
And now, the latest news: (Russian-language link): Medvedev has appointed several sharp Putin critics to the President’s Council on Human Rights and Civil Society.
Over the past several years, whenever I have written about the slow (and sometimes not so slow) destruction of freedom in Russia, my responses have invariably included comments that boiled down to, “Well, how is that different from what Bush/Cheney are doing to this country?” Here’s a 2007 blogpost along the same lines. The “Bush is as bad as Putin” trope also pops up quite frequently in various forums and comments sections of websites; sometimes, the trop is, “Putin isn’t nearly as bad as Bush” (see, for instance, the last comment here).
So, now that we are nearing the moment when we won’t have Bush to kick around anymore, I offer you a list of a few things that would have had to happen for Bush to be remotely like Putin.
- Shortly after September 11, Bush pushes through a constitutional amendment abolishing direct elections of governors and Senators, for nebulous “national security” reasons. They are now appointed by the administration.
- All the news networks except for one or two small stations are taken over by Bush cronies and turned into Fox News clones.
- Several politicians and journalists critical of Bush are murdered. Their killers are never found. Commenting on the murder of one journalist and speculation that she may have been killed on government orders, Bush dismissively comments, “We had no reason to kill her — her death has done much more harm to the country than her writings.”
- After George Soros announces his plans to finance a movement to defeat Bush in the next election, he is jailed on trumped-up charges of tax fraud and repeatedly denied parole on technicalities. Most of his wealth is confiscated.
- Due to the manipulation of election laws, after 2004 both houses of Congress are more than 70 percent Republican. Most of the remaining seats are held by the Conservative Party, the Right to Life Party, and Democrats loyal to Bush.
- In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both disqualified from running for office due to alleged irregularities in the documents they filed to be certified as candidates. Bush’s handpicked successor, Dick Cheney, runs against Al Sharpton and and Ralph Nader and handily defeats them.
And that, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course, to say that Bush is better than Putin is faint praise, and besides, even an American Putin would have found his ability to wreak havoc on democracy constained by our political system. But the point isn’t that Bush is so great; it’s that the comparisons to Putin are so specious.