MOSCOW – Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev can both claim success at a summit meant to put badly strained ties on track, but a third figure also seems to have emerged a winner: Vladimir Putin.
The Russian prime minister played a supporting role, limited mainly to a two-hour breakfast meeting with Obama on a suburban Moscow porch Tuesday.
But he played it deftly, standing back from the concessions Medvedev made and winning affirmation from Obama that he is a “tough, smart, shrewd” leader who still packs a lot of power.
Russian-American summits are traditionally parsed by pundits trying to determine which president, and which country, came out ahead. But Obama’s first Moscow summit was also watched for clues about the relationship between Medvedev and Putin, who guided his protege into office last year.
When the baby-faced, more mildly spoken Medvedev succeeded the popular Putin as president, analysts said that meetings with foreign leaders could help create the impression that he is in charge.
Two days of summitry with Obama did help Medvedev on that score: He held his own at a news conference and other events with Obama, and made no major gaffes. But they also enabled Putin to distance himself from agreements that might not seem to square with his tough reputation and the years of harsh rhetoric casting the U.S. as a threat to Russia.
In the summit’s showcase deal, Medvedev agreed to nuclear weapons reductions targets with Obama despite the lack of a U.S. promise to scrap the previous administration’s plans – vehemently criticized by the Kremlin – to deploy missile defence facilities in former Soviet satellite states.
Such dynamics seem to support the common conjecture that Putin chose Medvedev as a front man whose brief includes improving ties with the West and making cosmetic changes at home while the prime minister mulls his political future. Putin has not ruled out running for the presidency in 2012.
In the meantime, Putin hung back during the summit – but not too far back.
As Medvedev and Obama signed documents and held a joint news conference Monday, a flurry of remarks by Putin on the economy – his province as prime minister – were run urgently by Russian news agencies. Also competing with the news conference was the rebroadcast, on the main state sports channel, of a controversial soccer match that took place a month ago.
On Tuesday, footage of Putin meeting outdoors with burly bikers contrasted with Medvedev’s more straight-laced events.
And Putin used a continuing contretemps with Obama to burnish his image at home as a patriot and a plain-spoken man of the people – in contrast to Medvedev, a former lawyer and law teacher who struggles to act natural.
Before leaving for Russia, Obama had suggested Putin was mired in Cold War thinking, saying he had “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.” Putin responded in televised comments by saying that no Russian would ever assume such an awkward position: “We stand solidly on our own two feet and always look into the future.”
Explaining why he was meeting with Putin in addition to his presidential counterpart, Medvedev, Obama acknowledged that “Putin still has a lot of sway in Russia.”
Their meeting was relatively low-key, over breakfast with other officials on a verandah at Putin’s residence in Moscow’s rich western suburbs – the same one he occupied as president. But the fact that it took place at all might suggest, not least to Russians, that a meeting with Putin is a must for foreign visitors.
And after it was over, Obama’s assessment of Putin will hardly hurt his reputation at home.
“I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic,” Obama told Fox News Channel. “And on areas where we disagree, like Georgia, I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon.”