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Putin Pushing Obama’s Buttons

In what will widely and accurately be seen as a snub to President Obama, the newly reminted Russian President Vladimir Putin has regretfully announced that he will not be attending the G-8 Summit at Camp David. Despite reports that the summit was moved to the location to accommodate his wishes, a statement from the White House confirms that Putin has decided to sit out the meeting due to a need to take care of cabinet business at home. Instead, Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev will be going in his place, the New York Times reports.

Given that President Putin was in no doubt about his re-election and had plenty of time to work on his cabinet, the excuse is thin — more or less on a par with having to stay home that night to wash his hair.

The transparency of the excuse is an advantage from Putin’s point of view: it makes the underlying message more plain. For years, Russian leaders have wanted to undercut what they see as America’s undue power and prestige, and Putin, in particular, resents America’s condescending distaste for his government. From the Russian perspective, American statements about the need for democracy and reform in Russia are little more than intrusive and insulting meddling by overconfident foreigners, and they rub many the wrong way.

It’s good politics domestically and internationally to be seen as standing up to the US; Putin is eager to ding America’s image where he can, and ducking out of the G-8 summit is an easy way to do it without sacrificing anything important—these meetings are more pageantry than business. Putting the US off with such a feeble excuse not only sharpens the message to Washington; it communicates to the world that Russia feels no need to dance to Washington’s tune.

Russia, Putin wants us to believe, is a rising, self confident power; its unique political processes have given it a government that is strong enough and smart enough to guide Russia to new heights. Proud upholder of a multipolar world, Russia is an independent grat power without whose support no truly important problem can be addressed. The vitality of its economy, the popular support for its government and the transparency of its legal system make it a top destination for foreign investment. That at least is the image Putin would like to project.

And if you believe it, there’s a bridge he would like to sell you.

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  • Kris

    “Putin doesn’t want Russia to be a member of the G-8?”, inquired he disingenuously.

  • Kris

    Oh, and kudos on the headline.

  • thibaud

    “”[Putin views Russia as] an independent grat [sic] power without whose support no truly important problem can be addressed. …That is the image Putin would like to project.”

    ? ? ? что такой??

    Actually, while this is a crude projection of American Jacksonians’ view of the US role in the world – substitute “unipolar” for “multipolar” and “America” for “Russia” in that second to last paragraph, and it’s eerily accurate – it has next to nothing in common with how Russians view their own unique role in the world.

    For starters, their geostrategic position is nearly opposite to ours: they are an almost entirely landlocked Old World power straddling East and West and sitting alongside nearly every key battleground between the major empires in nearly every epoch. By that fact alone, Russia no matter how poor or rich or weak or strong will remain important to the great struggles of Europe and Asia.

    The converse is that, in contrast to the American desire to be relevant to if not dispositive of every “important world problem,” the Russians really don’t care much about anything that doesn’t immediately touch their borders, for the simple reason that their plate is already more than full. Unlike ours, their immediate neighborhood is itself so turbulent, violent, dangerous, vast, and complex that they will never give any thought to “important world problems” that don’t immediately touch their borders.

    So upheavals in North Africa, genocide in other parts of Africa, “freedom of the seas”, infanticide or human rights in China: none of these means anything to Putin or any Russian.

    Likewise, Putin doesn’t particularly care whether Russia is a “top destination for foreign investment.” Putin’s economic policy is a combination of reserve-hoarding mercantilism and bullying via the gas weapon.

    Russia’s reserves now give them plenty of freedom of maneuver, and in any case the Germans, Italians, French and British are investing on a massive scale into Russia and will continue to do so as long as the currency is stable and the political regime is predictable.

    As to this remark: “Russia, Putin wants us to believe, is a rising, self confident power…”

    WRM may want to believe that Russian power has NOT risen sharply since the fiascos and collapse of the immediate post-Soviet era, but wishing won’t make it so.

    By any objective measure of power and influence, Russia is far stronger today than it was in the late 1990s.

    None of this is to say that Russia is not a deeply troubled nation, or that Putin’s policies have not squandered (not to say embezzled) much of Russia’s natural resources bounty. IIRC it was Castlereagh who said “Russia is never so strong nor so weak as she appears.”

    But this blog has a really weird tendency to snarl and sneer at other nations, in ways that distort its judgment and lead it to some really odd conclusions. Better to try to understand other nations objectively, on their own terms, rather than imposing our own preconceptions and wishes on them.

    WRM’s not alone in failing to comprehend the Russian world-view, but the gap is huge. Here’s hoping his St Petersburg sojourn will help to close the gap somewhat.

  • Cunctator

    I don’t mean to be too glib about this, but would you want to spend several days at Camp David with the Ego that walks like a man? I can imagine how utterly pointless any diplomatic session with Obama must be. First, he is always right — in fact, he will be right about an issue even before he has ever said anything on it. Second, he understands everything, even if he has never before dealt with the subject at hand. And, third, he is so utterly and obviously incompetent, which magnifies many fold the frictions created by his other “qualities”.

    I am not annoyed at Putin: I feel sorry for Medvedev.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Letting them into the WTO will be as big a mistake as letting China in.

  • Brett

    Good riddance. Russia was always the odd one out in that group – significantly poorer, less democratic, and less capitalistic. The only reason they were invited was because they have a bunch of nuclear weapons.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Poor Russia, I had hoped for more for them when the Soviet Union fell. But I guess becoming an evolutionarily advanced western culture was too big a step to take all at once, and they have now backslid into an inefficient Authoritarian form of culture that doesn’t honor Democracy or the Rule of Law, and gives only lip service to Capitalism.

    “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” Edmund Burke

  • vanderleun

    It’s “Putin as the Strong Horse” vs. “Obama as My Little Pony.”

  • Walter Sobchak

    Where is my Reset Button? Has anybody seen my reset button?

  • john haskell

    thanks to thibaud for adding some knowledge to the debate

  • cali

    To top it off, Putin will play Obamalike a fiddle; he sees a very weak president and.

  • thibaud

    @ #6 – “… significantly .. less capitalistic…”
    @ #7 “… gives only lip service to Capitalism”

    Actually, Russia presents a picture of pure capitalism unrestrained by a strong regulatory state. This is the way Aubrey McClendon would behave if we didn’t have an SEC.

    Wise capitalists know that long term, the best defense of free markets is a set of clear rules, enforced by a strong and well-funded regulatory and judicial apparatus, that protect the interests of minority investors, consumers, the public sphere – and the capitalists themselves.

    Putin’s applying the wrong medicine, but he’s diagnosed the central illness of post-Soviet Russia: the weakness and incompetence of the State. Any Russian leader, no matter how liberal, will have to close the huge deficit in public goods provision – public safety, public health, public education etc.

    Nonetheless, Putin has several major achievements to his credit that go a long way toward explaining his popularity over the last decade.

    First, he put Russia’s public finances on a solid footing by wisely building up a huge trove of reserves.

    Second, he made sure that, for the first time, the pensions get paid on time and in full.

    Third, he restored a sense of national dignity by providing the most basic and essential public good of all: protecting the nation’s borders and defeating insurgency.

    But in the realms of rule of law, regulation of economic activity, public health, regional governance, halting China’s invasion by osmosis across the Russian Far East – in these areas, the Russian state is a shambles. In Huntington’s terms, it is a “disorderly” nation, one where the government doesn’t really govern.

    To be fair, it has always been thus. Read Herzen’s memoirs for a vivid picture of regional governors who rule, or misrule, their fiefdoms with complete disregard for the central sovereign, for rule of law, etc.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    #12 thibaud your extreme leftist bias is showing.

    Putin is a thug, you don’t spend your entire working life in government and some how become the 51% owner of the 3rd largest oil company in Russia, by being a law abiding public servant. This isn’t capitalism where private property rights are recognized, it’s gangster government and nothing good will come of it.

  • rkka


    “Poor Russia, I had hoped for more for them when the Soviet Union fell.”

    let me guess… what gave you hope was the fact that in the 1990s Russian deaths were exceeding births by up to a million a year.

    Thibaud is dead on. It’s your foaming-at-the-mouth belligerence(Just like Andy Jackson in that) that clouds your vision.

    “…it’s gangster government and nothing good will come of it.”

    Actually, JL, much good has come of Putin’s governance. Russia’s GNP was ~$200 billion in 1999, and deaths exceeded births by 958,000. Now Russia’s GNP is ~$1,800 billion, and deaths will equal births in 2012.

    So I’ll just conclude that you care not how, or even whether, Russians live, only that the Russian government submits to the USA.

  • thibaud

    @ #13 – giggle. It’s your own bias that’s blinding you to the obvious fact that Putin is both a capitalist and a thug. The picture is of course mixed.

    “Capitalist” is not, as you seem to think, some kind of signifier of virtue; it’s a morally neutral term for a business owner who uses investment capital to generate favorable returns for himself and other owners – nothing more, nothing less.

    As Adam Smith put it, capitalists are not “benevolent”; their intentions aren’t even relevant to their impact on society. But by this very fact, private capital needs to operate within a well-regulated social order, with a strong and competent supervisory state, rule of law etc.

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