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News Analysis: Putin Pulls Levers As Russian Patriarch, PM Head Abroad

Will Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) use high-profile meetings abroad by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (right) to build real bridges, or to execute tactical moves in a mounting confrontation with the West?

With the Russian patriarch and prime minister both holding big meetings abroad, this weekend presents a chance for President Vladimir Putin to soothe a world still stunned by Moscow's aggression in Ukraine and dismayed by its bombing campaign in Syria.

Russian Orthodox Church chief Kirill holds historic talks with Pope Francis at the airport in Havana, Cuba, on February 12, the first such meeting since Christendom split in two more than 1,000 years ago.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will speak at the annual Munich Security Conference on February 12-14 -- the same forum at which Putin ripped into Washington and the West in a 2007 address that set the tone for years of discord.

Facing deep economic troubles and persistent Western sanctions, Putin may be looking for ways to alleviate Russia's isolation.

But will he use the high-profile meetings of two top allies to build real bridges, or to execute tactical moves in a mounting confrontation with the United States and Europe?

Signs point to something far short of the first and closer to the second: an effort to improve Russia's global image and score points with the West without giving ground on the gritty issues of Syria and Ukraine -- or even the deep-rooted disputes between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.

The clearest of those signs, perhaps, is the fact that Putin is not attending the security conference.

"I will not come to Munich," he said bluntly in an interview with German tabloid Bild last month.

Why not?

It would seem like an opportune time for Putin to pitch for a thaw in ties with the West, or at least make a case for two things he wants: relief from sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union over Russia's role in the war that has killed more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine, and an end to criticism of its bombing campaign in Syria.

Putin Steers Clear

But there are at least two potential motives behinds the decision by Putin, who has not attended the Munich Security Conference since his jolting 2007 appearance, to give it a miss once again.

One is the apparent animus between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose opposition to Russia's interference in Ukraine was by all accounts tougher than the Kremlin expected and dashed Moscow's hopes for a muted Western response.

Merkel, whose position at home has been weakened by an influx of refugees now aggravated by Russian air strikes in Syria, said in February 8 that she was "not just appalled but horrified" by the suffering caused by the bombing in Syria, primarily by Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, an event that set the tone for tense relations between Moscow and the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, an event that set the tone for tense relations between Moscow and the West.

For the time being, Germany is enemy territory for Putin.

But the main reason that Putin is not going to Munich may be that he just doesn't think he needs to.

He seems to have the upper hand in Syria at the moment, and may believe he'll get it soon in Ukraine.

Russia's stepped-up military campaign appears to have reshaped the five-year war in Syria,bringing President Bashar al-Assad's government back from the brink of battlefield defeat and increasing the chances that if a resolution is achieved, it will suit the Kremlin.

Russia is facing growing criticism over civilian casualties in Syria and risks becoming mired in a long and costly conflict with repercussions for its own large Muslim minority. But for now, Putin seems confident he is winning what many see as a proxy war with the United States.

In a bid to put pressure on Washington ahead of the conference and a February 11 meeting in Munich on Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had proposed a "concrete plan" to end the conflict and expressed hope the United States would not dawdle with a response.

In eastern Ukraine, a fragile cease-fire is turning the war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists into a frozen conflict that is a constant threat to the country's unity and economic health.

Medvedev In Munich

Russia has not achieved what many analysts believe is a chief goal: a say for the separatists in Ukrainian foreign policy decisions, which would in effect mean a Russian veto on NATO and EU membership for Kyiv.

But with cracks appearing in European unity and increasing frustration in the West over the slow pace of reforms in Ukraine, Putin has grounds to hope that this year will bring an end to many of the economic sanctions on Russia -- or even the collapse of the government in Kyiv.

Instead of going to the Munich Security Conference himself, Putin is sending both Lavrov and Medvedev, the pliant protege who helped mend ties with the West while keeping the presidential seat warm in 2008-12.

Putin could be hoping for a similar effect from Medvedev in Munich. Alternatively, he may use Medvedev as a mere messenger, tasked with delivering a version of Putin's own stern words and absorbing whatever criticism comes his way.

Whether the prime minister lays into the West or appeals for understanding, any message Putin wants to send is undermined if delivered by Medvedev because of his image as an underling with no real clout.

Ahead of the Munich meeting, Moscow set about playing down its significance. Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of Russia's upper parliament house, said she does not expect a "breakthrough" and blamed the West in advance.

"Regrettably, we do not see reasonable ideas coming from the West," she said on February 10.

Kirill The 'Courier'

The Munich Security Conference starts the same day that Patriarch Kirill is set to meet Pope Francis at the Havana airport.

It will be the first meeting since the Christian world split in the Great Schism of 1054 between the heads of the Catholic Church and what is now the largest church in Eastern Orthodoxy.

A meeting with the Moscow patriarch had eluded Francis's two most recent predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with the Russian church frequently saying longstanding disputes -- over property in Ukraine and Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church has poached members of its flock, among other issues -- must be resolved before it could happen.

Many Russians believe the decision to meet the pope now is not the result of a change of heart by Kirill, but of a pragmatic calculation by Putin.

"It's a good sign, but it's obvious that the Russian state is seeking lines of communication with the West, and the patriarch is a courier," Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, said on the air on February 6. Kirill's job, he said, is to tell the pope that "Western European leaders" can communicate with Russia through him.

Kirill has strongly supported Putin at home in Russia, even offering crystal-clear backing in the 2012 election that returned him to the Kremlin.

That record has led to suspicions that Putin may see the historic meeting as a chance to paint Russia in a positive light -- as a proponent of peace, moral rectitude, and global religious unity -- at a time when it is under fire over its actions from the takeover of Crimea to what critics say is an indiscriminate bombing campaign that has killed large numbers of Syrian civilians.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.