European leaders have been quick to check the attitude and indeed the authority of the Russian President-Elect Dmitry Medvedev. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first to call with congratulations on the victory, dubious as it was. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rushed to Moscow last weekend in order to gain a first-hand impression of the negotiating style and changes in the behavior of the shy bureaucrat whom Vladimir Putin had promoted as his successor. Apparently, she did not detect any readiness to step away from Putin’s guidelines, as Medvedev remained cautious and reserved during the “very factual” meeting (Financial Times, March 10; Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 11).
Recent developments suggest that Putin is still in charge of foreign policy, especially regarding NATO. Merkel’s breakfast meeting with Putin was richer in content and provided some interesting food for thought. Expressing his objections to NATO expansion, Putin left out hypothetical military threats but compared it with building a new security system that could substitute for the United Nations – but does not include Russia (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 10). He voiced particular doubts about NATO’s role in Afghanistan, thus devaluing several signals about the possible upgrading of cooperation, first of all in transit of supplies for NATO forces through Russian territory (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, Lenta.ru, March 7). This contradiction may, in fact, serve as a trial balloon for a proposal that Putin might present at the NATO Bucharest summit next month where he could offer a significant contribution to the Alliance’s troubled operation in Afghanistan, implicitly linked to a postponement of the controversial issue of offering a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. Prevention of NATO expansion into Russia’s immediate neighborhood would then become a major final triumph of Putin’s presidency.
This prospect was discussed in Paris earlier this week, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov partook in the annual meeting of the Security Cooperation Council with their French counterparts (Vremya novostei, March 12). Later this month, U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rica and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are expected in Moscow to continue discussions in the so-called two-plus-two format with Lavrov and Serdyukov (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 12). It is not certain at all that the outcome would be exactly to Putin’s liking, so he is taking a calculated risk with the trip to Bucharest. He might count on the reluctance of at least some NATO leaders to embrace Georgia’s and Ukraine’s applications that would signify a deliberate affront to Russia’s good will, half-hearted as it is.
It is clear that Medvedev is not involved in these complicated maneuvers and prefers to keep a low profile in foreign policy matters, where he has little experience (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 3). It is also clear that he does not feel obliged to reiterate Putin’s statements and imitate his assertive and even abrasive style, unlike First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who has stoically accepted his loss in the squabble for succession. While Lavrov and Serdyukov most probably will keep their posts under Prime Minister Putin, Medvedev is yet to form his “team” – and much would depend upon his choice of quiet professionals like Igor Shuvalov or sleek propagandists like Sergei Yastrzhembsky for foreign policy aides. One cadre decision that would definitely indicate Medvedev’s ambition to escape from Putin’s shadow is the possible return of the experienced Alexander Voloshin to the presidential administration and the departure of his nemesis Igor Sechin; another key appointment would be to the position of secretary of the Security Council, as this chair has remained vacant since Igor Ivanov’s resignation last July (RIA-Novosti, March 12; EDM, March 5).
One realm of international relations where Medvedev has plenty of experience is gas policy, but Putin is unlikely to relax his firm control over this sector, and the expected appointment of his protégé Viktor Zubkov, who is completing his short term as prime minister, as Gazprom’s chairman of the board might deny Medvedev his habitual insight into the company’s complicated finances (Gazeta.ru, March 11). In the coming weeks, however, the most difficult gas bargaining will be not with Merkel or Sarkozy but with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, who collectively pressed Gazprom to raise import prices to European levels already in 2009 (Kommersant, Vedomosti, March 12). A good grasp on the details of this “presidential” business might not be enough for Medvedev to negotiate on equal footing with Messrs Nazarbayev, Berdimukhamedov, and Karimov, who are sovereign masters of their respective states and do not need to ask the opinions of their prime ministers.
The impression that Putin is not particularly eager to share his foreign policy experience with Medvedev and introduce him to new responsibilities has been strengthened by one peculiar twist in his joint press-conference with Merkel. Without been questioned, he ventured an opinion that Western counterparts would not find in Medvedev an easy partner, since he was no less a “Russian nationalist” than Putin himself, even if he had never been a “KGB agent” (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 11). Only envy at the keen European interest in Medvedev’s views can explain this odd choice of words (as a former KGB officer, Putin certainly knows the difference between an “officer” and an “agent”), while the notion of “Russian nationalist” was carefully edited out in the news bulletins on all Russian TV channels and translated as “Russian patriot” on the presidential website.
Putin suggested that Medvedev would not need “to prove his liberal views,” but that poignant remark implies that he might have a hard time proving something else – his commitment to the course of asserting Russia’s “greatness” by building its hard power and rejecting the rules and norms that constrain it. The disgruntled siloviki are watching him for any sign of weakness, so it would be far easier for Medvedev to define NATO as an “aggressive bloc” than to reject the absurd notion of “colonial provisions” in the CFE Treaty. Whatever his personal preferences are, Medvedev is far more a courtier than a statesman – so his natural choice would be to pretend to lead the patriotic drumbeating rather than trying to tone it down.