Earlier this month, the weekly "Argumenti nedeli" wrote that Obama's "main objective" in his July visit was to test "the durability of the Putin-Medvedev tandem" and to "identify the key person to place their bets on."
According to "Argumenti nedeli," the White House is clearly placing its hopes in Medvedev and is now trying to build the president up and diminish the influence of Putin and the siloviki close to him, most notably Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin:
During their summit in Moscow, Obama and Medvedev set up 13 presidential working groups to foster closer cooperation in areas like civil society, the economy, international security, health, and the environment. (For a complete list click here.)
It should be noted that these working groups have already caused a bit of a stir, but not from the Putin camp. Russian rights activists expressed concern about First Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, widely considered Putin's unofficial ideologist, being named co-coordinator of the civil society working group.
Meanwhile, the official daily of the Russian government, "Rossiiskie vesti," which is obviously sympathetic to Putin, sees an even deeper conspiracy afoot:
I must have missed that memo. As the Moscow elite gets more and more divided over the economic crisis, Putin's water carriers in the Russian media appear to be setting up the a new boogie man. Any schisms you see among Russia's rulers, they suggest, are the result of American meddling.
This, of course, gets things exactly backwards.
Careful readers of this blog will recall that I have written (here and here) that the White House seems to indeed be trying to take advantage of existing splits within the Russian elite by appealing to its relatively progressive and constructive wing.
But even casual readers of this blog have probably noticed that we have been writing about these widening schisms extensively (some might even say obsessively) well before Obama even took the oath of office.
Given the administration's goals with Russia, playing on these already existing divisions makes sense.
Sechin and the siloviki clan, after all, have built their legitimacy on stoking anti-Western anti-American sentiments and are not terribly interested in a meaningful reset in relations. The technocrats surrounding Medvedev, on the other hand, understand that in the current economic environment, some kind of liberalization and accommodation with the West is necessary.
Now, as Medvedev begins to take some steps to assert his authority, most notably with his moves to rein in Russia's state corporations, it looks like team Putin is gearing up its response with a media campaign (and a little bit of public bonding with Medvedev in Sochi to drive the point home).
This could get very interesting very soon.
-- Brian Whitmore