Friday, July 10, 2009

What's Obama Up To With Russia?

Anne Applebaum has a piece in Slate trying to figure out the goings-on in Russia over the last week. The basic story is this: Barack Obama basically held more substantive talks with Dmitry Medvedev than with Vladimir Putin. This is, on the surface at least, is puzzling, because everybody (supposedly) knows that Putin is really in charge, and so if you want to advance your interests with respect to Russia, you talk to the guy who can actually do something (Putin) rather than the mere figurehead (Medvedev).

Applebaum's answer is that pragmatism was behind it:
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 of all because if you don't talk to the person who's really in charge then you can't expect to get much done. As I understand it, though, this decision was taken at least partly on pragmatic grounds: Meetings with Putin nowadays tend to turn into extended rants about Russia's grievances (this week's breakfast meeting apparently being no exception), which doesn't leave much time to pursue productive conversation. Since Putin isn'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 since Medvedev seemingly can't do much about it in any case, the U.S. administration seems to have figured that there wasn't much point in dealing with the issue at all. Instead, it dealt with less controversial subjects—nuclear-arms reductions (which mostly would have happened anyway), fly-over rights for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan (which are apparently useful but not crucial)—that Medvedev might actually be able to sort out.

This may well be true, but I have another hypothesis. I should emphasize that this is mere conjecture and I have neither read nor heard this idea anywhere else: namely, Obama might be trying to subtely provoke a split between the two, and wean Medvedev to a more Western-friendly disposition.

I first got this notion when I read a story last week, before Obama's departure. Obama, always one to carefully calibrate his words, basically said that while Putin was stuck in an old way of doing things, he had hope for Medevdev.

The president said his agenda in Russia includes talks on a new treaty to curtail long-range nuclear missiles.

Asked why he intends to meet Putin, Obama said the former president "still has a lot of sway ... and 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 — that's 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 US is not seeking an antagonistic relationship but wants cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation, fighting terrorism, energy issues, that we'll end up having a stronger partner overall in this process," he said.

You read between those lines, and it's a fair assumption, at least to me, that Obama is saying the following: "Medvedev? I can do business with him. Putin? No chance -- he's a cold warrior." And I think (again, this is just a hypothesis) that he intended on sending that exact same signal to two parties: Medvedev and Putin.

While it certainly seems that Medvedev and Putin are on the same page on most issues, and that Medvedev is perfectly satisfied with playing the loyal-delegate role, we must remember that things can change quickly. To reach for two well-known examples, both Napoleon and Stalin were promoted within their respective power structures by those above them because it was thought they would be loyal, and would never challenge the people doing the promoting. Closer to home -- in a move that seemed tragically ironic just a few months later -- Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promoted Zia-ul-Haq above more deserving generals, thinking he would keep him under his thumb (Nawaz Sharif did the same with Pervez Musharraf, by the way). The basic lesson is that sometimes the loyal lapdog isn't very loyal if the right incentives come along.

So what Obama could be doing here is providing that incentive structure, or at least trying his best to tweak Putin. Putin, more than most leaders, strikes me as the paranoid sort, who would move perhaps too quickly to nip any domestic threats in the bud. What if the quasi-flattery got to Medvedev, and he became more sympathetic to the West and the U.S. than Putin currently is? What if Medvedev felt emboldened enough to assert his views, and voice disagreements with Putin (in private, of course)? What then? Might there be the development of some cracks in the Russian leadership, which at present seems impregnable?

Just thinking out loud.


AKS said...

I almost always find Anne Applebaum to be annoying, and at times plain stupid.

Anonymous said...

I'm suprised you didnt mention how this is not very different from what they're trying to do in Iran: drawing cracks within the regime.

Ahsan said...


I think the cases are different in that in the Iranian case, the splits/cracks were developed from within whereas in the Russian case, Obama might be trying to provoke one from without.

Chad said...

I think you're on to something here. I look at this a mature way to handle political capital. Obama's got it big time in the international arena, and he's investing some of it in Medvedev.

On a more partisan note: I think this highlights the differences in Obama's and Bush's approaches. First, Bush saw capital as something to spend: he would have used it (if he'd had any) to try to push Putin around. Obama sees capital, appropriately as something to invest: put down a little money and watch it grow.

Second, this also pertains to the objections over negotiating with Iran "without preconditions" and all that. I always felt that revealed an idea of politics as high-school cafeteria. The US is the head cheerleader and if we sit at your table for lunch, it makes you one of the cool kids.

Needless to say, I think this notion is very very wrong. Iran, as a state, is sovereign, and its influence is a function of its capabilities (ok, Realism 101, I know), not the bestowal of our attention. However, I think a state can use the bestowal of its attention to tip the balance of an internal power struggle.

I'm reminded of Bobby Kennedy's master-stroke during the Cuban Missile Crisis: the US received two conflicting secret communiques from the USSR, a belligerent message from the military and a conciliatory message from the civilian leadership. RFK advised his brother to respond to the latter and ignore the former, and it helped resolved the crisis (IR folks, is this from Graham Alison?). When one side of a intra-state power struggle offers you a better option, take it.

Moreover, I feel that this ability is enhanced when the struggle is latent (as in Russia) as compared to when it is overt (as in Iran currently). When the struggle is overt, the possibility for blowback might be to great.

Ok, so these thoughts about latent vs. overt conflicts are underdeveloped. The issue might not be latency, but formal authority or access to the security apparatus or some other factor.

Mickey Brown Face said...

Anne Applebaum is one of the Washington Post's band of boring columnists. At least the Times columnists have personalities.

In Russia, it's a good cop bad cop game. Both Medvedev and Putin want a strong Russia and seek to regain what they see as its rightful place in an emerging multi-polar world.

Your hypothetical is plausible (that Medvedev=Zia, Putin=Bhutto), but Putin's position is far more consolidated than any Pakistani civilian leader and there's no indication Medvedev has created an alternative center of power.

Ahsan said...


You're spot on with the Bush vs. Obama understanding of political capital.

I think there's a flip-side to a domestic two-actor bargaining game. I remember reading this for the IR prelim but I forget where I read it, but the basic point was this: one's ability to get a desired deal depends heavily on whether or not there is a more extreme option for the other guy back home. So basically, in the analysis so far, we've basically treated a split in your negotiating partner as a good thing.

But it can be a bad thing too, because your negotiating partner can, in effect, say: "look better sign this because I'm the best shot you have -- if you have to deal with my buddy back home, trust me, you won't even smell a deal as good as this." The deeper the perceived split, the more credible such a threat is. Just a thought.


Yeah, that's a good point about an alternative center of power. I hadn't considered that to be honest. But my best guess is that someone like Medvedev didn't show up from nowhere -- he clearly has some sort of base or pedigree for him to be chosen in the first place.