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Leaked Diplomatic Cables Show 'Steely-Eyed' U.S. View Of Russia

  • Brian Whitmore

U.S. President Barack Obama (second from left) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) meet at the latter's country residence outside Moscow in July 2009.

U.S. President Barack Obama (second from left) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) meet at the latter's country residence outside Moscow in July 2009.

The United States considers Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to be Russia's true ruler despite the close relationship and public camaraderie that has developed between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.

In leaked U.S. diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, officials describe Medvedev as "pale and hesitant," a sharp contrast to their portrayal of Putin as an "alpha dog." The cables also note that Medvedev -- the country's nominal ruler -- appears to play "Robin to Putin's Batman."

In another cable describing a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and French Defense Minister Herve Morin in February, Gates is quoted as saying that "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services."

Excerpts from the cables were published by the newspapers "The New York Times" in the United States, "The Guardian" in Great Britain, "Der Spiegel" in Germany, France's "Le Monde," and Spain's "El Pais."

Analysts say the classified documents illustrate that despite the noticeably warmer relationship that has evolved between Washington and Moscow since Obama announced his reset policy, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment harbors few illusions about the nature of Russian domestic politics and Kremlin's international intentions.

"It shows that there is this cold, steely-eyed realism about Russia," says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Navy War College and author of the former "The Washington Realist" blog who writes for "World Politics Review."

"They are not taken in by the rhetoric about managed democracy and managed pluralism. In private they recognize it for what it is, an oligarchy run by the security services and this informs their policy towards Russia."

This was clear from the cable describing Gates' meeting with Morin, in which the defense secretary tried to convince the French not to sell Mistral-class warships to Russia, a prospect that alarmed neighboring Georgia and others.

Gates told Morin that such a move would send "a mixed signal to both Russia and our Central and Eastern European allies." According to the correspondence, Gates also said Medvedev "has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than Putin, but there has been little real change."

A More Cunning Game

In another cable, an unidentified U.S. diplomat described Putin's problems struggling with an unmanageable bureaucracy and ruling a "virtual mafia state."

Gvosdev says the disclosures show that the administration does not "assume greater virtue" on the part of the Russians, even as it tries to work with Moscow.

"What they have always grappled with is: given the realities, what do we do about it?" Gvosdev says.

"They never really fell into this approach with Russia that there are these problems and we ought to fix them. Their approach is: we've been dealt the hand we've been dealt and these are the people we are dealing with. But let's try to extract whatever value we can from the relationship."

Since Obama initiated his "reset" policy with Russia shortly after taking office last year, Eastern European officials have repeatedly expressed fears that their interests would be sacrificed on the altar of better relations between Moscow and Washington. Domestic critics have also slammed the policy as a naive capitulation to Moscow.

The leaked cables appear to show, however, that the administration harbors few illusions about Russia.

Among the elite in Moscow, the gap between Obama's friendly public posture toward Russia and the ice-cold assessment that emerged private communications among diplomats came as no surprise.

"In Russia the public and the political elite are much more cynical and realistic than in Western countries. So the fact that diplomats say one thing [in public] and wrote something else [in cables] is in no way unexpected," says political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based policy journal "Russia in Global Affairs."

Lukyanov adds that it stands to reason that the Obama administration would ruthlessly pursue American interests even as it sought improved relations and greater cooperation with Moscow.

"We always thought that the Americans were playing a much more cunning game," he says. "In Russia nobody thinks Obama lacks an understanding of our country. He just thinks long-term and has his own priorities."

Batman, Robin, And Alpha Dog

The candid revelations in the cables come at a particularly crucial juncture in Russia's relations with the West, and with the United States in particular. At NATO's recent summit in Lisbon, Russia and the trans-Atlantic alliance agreed to cooperate in a number of areas, including a new missile-defense system championed by Obama.

Russia has also agreed to allow NATO to transport nonlethal military equipment across its territory to Afghanistan. Moscow has also joined Washington in imposing sanctions against Iran in an effort to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Analysts say it is doubtful that the warming trend between Moscow and the West will be harmed by the WikiLeaks disclosures.

"Everybody understands that people use language freely in closed diplomatic cables. It is unpleasant. But since the United States honestly warned that this was coming, there is no reason to get stressed out over this," Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"Are we going to claim that our president is actually Batman himself and not just Batman's assistant? Or that Putin isn't really an alpha dog but rather a beta dog? This is just not that interesting."

One thing that could damage the reset, however, would be Obama's inability to get a reluctant Senate to ratify the new START nuclear-arms control treaty that he signed with Medvedev in Prague in April.

"I don't think this [the WikiLeaks documents] will harm the reset by itself. But the reset will have its own problems if the new START treaty isn't ratified," Lukyanov says. "This would raise a lot of questions about what happens next [in U.S.-Russian relations]."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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