Obama Plays Medvedev against Putin and Iran

“Medvedev-watching” graduated from pure science to applied science during the four-day visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to New York and Pittsburgh last week.

The Western perception that the famous Prime Minister Vladimir Putin-Medvedev “tandem” in Moscow would inevitably transform and the Russian president would incrementally create his own power center in the Kremlin received a boost.

During his visit to Moscow in July, United States President Barack Obama hinted at such a perception.  As against eight hours that Obama clocked with Medvedev, he spared 90 minutes with Putin, whom he also made it a point to describe tendentiously as someone with one foot planted in the bygone Cold War era.  The implication was that Medvedev was open to engagement by the West.

Medvedev avoids doing anything to debunk the growing perception of him as a reformist in the wings.  The article he penned on September 10 in the run-up to his US visit titled “Go Russia!” and his subsequent interaction with Western Russia experts (known as the Valdai Club) reinforced the impression that he was on a course to carve out his public identity.  In “Go Russia!” he distanced himself in subtle strokes from many facets of “Putinism” — stressing, for instance, that “petulance, arrogance, insecurity, mistrust and especially hostility must be eliminated from Russia’s relations with leading democratic countries”.

He wrote, “We must be able to interest partners and involve them in joint activity.  And if we need to change something in ourselves, get rid of prejudices and illusions, in order to be able to do so, then we must do so.”  Medvedev admitted while at Pittsburgh on Friday that it thrilled him “Go Russia!” was noticed abroad.  “Of course, I won’t name names [of world leaders] so as not to put anyone in an awkward position, but I really did discuss aspects of this article with my colleagues.  I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy this.”

Medvedev Goes ‘Presidential’

After an engrossing visit to Russia recently, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wrote, “The White House sees advantage in playing to Medvedev . . . and treating him as a Russian version of Obama: a young leader struggling to transform his stumbling nation.”

The White House’s strategy of “playing to” Medvedev may be beginning to pay off.  The perceptible shift in the Kremlin’s stance on the Iran nuclear issue came as a surprise.  It had every bit Medvedev’s personal stamp.  From an equivocal position that sanctions are sometimes necessary, Medvedev carried the shift further than anyone could have imagined.

Arguably, in the light of the disclosure on Thursday regarding the construction of a new reprocessing plant by Iran, Medvedev did so.  But the extent of the “hardening” and Medvedev’s role in piloting it while actually on a visit to the US merit attention.

Medvedev’s contribution was timely and it mattered a great deal to the Obama administration.  US officials cited the “strong” Russian statement of Thursday condemning Tehran to the Indian delegation in Pittsburgh as an example worth emulating.  (India stuck to its five-year old “principled position” that Iran had the right to the peaceful use of atomic energy but that it also had to fulfill its obligations.)

Subsequently, Medvedev at his press conference following the Group of 20 (G-20) summit at Pittsburgh on Friday suo moto revisited the subject of Iran’s new facility to emphasize Russia’s solidarity with “its other partners”.  Moscow altogether ignored Tehran’s contention that it had acted in accordance with regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations.

Discord in Moscow

However, a large corpus of policymakers in Moscow does not seem to share Medvedev’s enthusiasm to take the Russian stance close to the Western approach on the Iran problem.  Consider the following.

On Thursday, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak (who represented Russia previously in the “Iran Six” format) said in Washington:

Sanctions or no sanctions is not the way to pose the problem.  The point is how to find a political solution that would eliminate this problem.  There are opportunities for this and we will work on it.  We have always held a flexible position.  The point is what are the priorities of the international community.  Now, the priority is to start a serious dialogue with our Iranian partners in seeking a way out of the situation.

Again, just as Medvedev was sitting down with Obama on Wednesday, Dmitry Rogozin, Russian ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a Putin appointee, went ballistic on the Moscow TV channel Vesti about US-Russia relations and the expansion of NATO, among other issues.

“It is extremely important that the US continues moving toward clearing our relations of negative, old, decayed rubbish that belongs to the Cold War era,” Rogozin thundered.

Again, Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, who is close to Putin’s circles, told Interfax:

The issue of imposing sanctions on Iran raised in the negotiations between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama calls for absolutely clear legal substantiation.  The IAEA has not made any claims against Iran and the information based on manipulation by the Western intelligence services cannot be used as grounds.  IAEA claims against Tehran could be a ground.  But even if such claims are brought, the most that can be expected of Russia is its consent to take part in the discussion of the sanctions.

Significantly, the day Medvedev met Obama in New York, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (who was handpicked by Putin) launched a diatribe on government television and website against US and British intelligence for inciting separatism in the Caucasus.

Now they are sending groups of foreigners to us.  We are fighting the US and British special services in the mountains. . . .  Putin took it [Russia] out of chaos, removed [oligarchs Boris] Berezovsky, [Vladimir] Guisinky, [Boris] Khodorovsky.  He took everything away from them.  Did they forgive him?  Now a new strike is being delivered against Putin, against Russia.

These Russian voices cannot be ignored.  Surely, Medvedev’s shift on Iran needs to be put in perspective.  Obama has taken a momentous decision to scrap plans for a missile defense system located in Europe.  Obama has held out the assurance on finalizing a new arms reduction treaty by the year-end.  And Obama says he wants to bury the Cold War.  Moscow is under compulsion to reciprocate.

However, the big question remains whether Medvedev’s hardening of line on Iran truly reflects the thought processes in Moscow or whether Obama’s beleaguered presidency indeed has the political stamina to push through an agenda of a “reset” of relations with Russia.

In Pittsburgh, Medvedev might have taken pains to be of “help” to Obama when the controversy regarding the new Iranian nuclear facility suddenly erupted.  Surely, a personal note has crept in — on Medvedev’s part, at least.  As he told the Washington Post‘s Jim Hoagland, with former president George W Bush, “We would talk for an hour and run out of topics.”  But with Obama, “We can discuss anything.  Obama talks himself, not his aides.  He is trying to be independent, and that is what I am trying to do. . . .  Our talks have been quite productive.”

The Russian stance on Iran was always delicately poised.  It is never easy to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.  The Pittsburgh meet was on the G-20 and there was actually no need, leave alone compulsion, for Russia to hold out expansively on the Iran nuclear issue.  The unwarranted and excessive “hardening” in Pittsburgh can have implications for overall Russian-Iranian understanding.  Russia will now have some dexterous backtracking to do.

The point is, the controversy over the new Iranian facility itself seems to be dying down.  Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi offered that IAEA inspectors could visit the facility under construction and ensure there was nothing “secret” about it.  Salehi pointed out that the controversy was futile since the new facility wouldn’t be operational for 18 months and Tehran was required to inform the IAEA about it only six months before introducing nuclear materials into it.

Tehran apparently “pre-empted a conspiracy” by reporting the facility’s existence voluntarily to the IAEA much in advance as it estimated that the US and its allies might posit the site as evidence that Iran had a “secret” nuclear program.  To be sure, there has been a cat-and-mouse game involving Western (and Israeli) and Iranian intelligence agencies and Tehran feared a military attack.

“Given the threats we face every day, we are required to take the necessary precautionary measures, spread our facilities and protect our human assets.  Therefore, the facility is to guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activity under any conditions,” Salehi told Iranian television on Saturday.

Obama and his “partners” who condemned Tehran from the Pittsburgh pulpit rushed into judgment.  For Moscow, the discomfiture must be all the more acute as Tehran simply ignored its strictures.  At any rate, what counts for Tehran will be Obama’s words — not Medvedev’s.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.  His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.  This article appears in the 29 September 2009 issue of Asia Times; it is reproduced here for educational purpose.