President Obama’s second day in Russia on Tuesday was a fire hydrant of news -– most of it overshadowed by coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral –- in which Obama boxed with the shadow of Vladimir Putin, the man who many have concluded runs the Kremlin by proxy.
Obama’s day began with a breakfast with Putin, the former KGB agent and past president who is now the country’s prime minister and continues to control much of the increasingly authoritarian government.
Even the meeting’s timing seemed to have been orchestrated by Putin to his advantage.
“[Obama] normally does not do breakfast meetings, it’s not his style,” said an Obama adviser, who hastened to add that the president “definitely was ready for this one and was definitely enjoying the interaction.”
The meeting was long –- dominated for the first hour by Putin’s harangue on the Cold War, the very subject Obama said he did not come to Russia to talk about -– and intense, if not tense, aides said.
“I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic,” Obama said in an interview with Fox News afterward. “And on areas where we disagree, like Georgia, I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Putin and Obama made short statements. Obama saluted Putin for “extraordinary work … on behalf of the Russian people.”
Putin, as he is wont to do, made an oblique statement that could be interpreted several different ways.
“With you we link all our hopes for the furtherance of relations between our two countries,” Putin told Obama. Possible translation: if you want to “reset” relations, as you say, it’s on you to make the concessions.
The only concession made by the White House on Tuesday was in their stated opinion of Putin.
Obama said last week that Putin “has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”
A Putin spokesman rebuked this comment and said Obama would change his mind after meeting Putin for the first time in person. And in fact, Obama’s advisers said Tuesday that this had in fact happened.
“I would say that he’s very convinced that the Prime Minister is a man of today and has got his eyes firmly on the future, as well,” said a top adviser who spoke to reporters in Moscow on the condition he not be named.
Obama was asked about this by Fox News’ Major Garrett, which prompted this fascinating exchange:
GARRETT: After your meeting, do you still believe the prime minister has one foot stuck in the Cold War?
OBAMA: I think that he would admit that his formative years were…
GARRETT: I mean now, though.
OBAMA: … shaped in the Cold War, and that some of his continued grievances with respect to the West are still dated in some of the suspicions that came out of that period.
But as I’ve said, I think he genuinely would like to see U.S.-Russian relations improve. I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic. And on areas where we disagree, like Georgia, I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon.
On areas where we have common interests, like fighting terrorism, I think that there is great potential for us to do some work together.
GARRETT: So he does or doesn’t?
OBAMA: Does or doesn’t?
GARRETT: Still have a foot in the — stuck in the Cold War?
OBAMA: Well, as — I think that, as I said before, he is…
GARRETT: You said that last week, and then he said he doesn’t. And I’d just like to know after your meeting if anything changed?
OBAMA: I think I answered the question, Major. What I said was his formative years came out of that period.
Garrett also reported that Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, said Putin took up the first hour of a nearly two-hour meeting with what was virtually a monologue (Garrett called it a “lecture”) about the history of the Cold War.
ABC’s Jake Tapper also reported this and added that Obama told former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev afterward, in a separate meeting, that he thought it was “important to listen” to Putin.
On the major issues of conflict between the U.S. and Russia, Obama refused to link U.S. plans for a missile defense system with the outcome of talks on nuclear arms reductions or other issues where the U.S. needs Russian cooperation, such as Iran.
Obama’s adviser lauded the entire two-day summit in Russia as historic.
“I’ll let you guys do your homework in terms of historical analogies, but I dare you to think of a summit that was so substantive, sustained,” Obama’s top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, told reporters.
“We hit all of the dimensions of the U.S.-Russian relationship between the government and society, the security stuff, the arms control stuff, the nuclear proliferation stuff, food, health,” McFaul said. “I can’t think of a summit that was so comprehensive.”
After his meeting with Putin, Obama gave a 30-minute speech at a Moscow business school which in many respects could be seen as an attempt to subtly repudiate Putin’s governing style and worldview. There were references to “spheres of influences” and to geopolitics as chess.
“In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries,” Obama said.
Putin, for his part, put on a leather jacket and sunglasses and went to visit a biker group after his meeting with Obama.
Perhaps mindful that his visit would be fighting for TV coverage with the Jackson funeral, Obama also did interviews with all five major TV networks. [Transcripts here: ABC News, Fox News — CBS, CNN and NBC had not posted transcripts as of this writing.]
In the interviews, Obama faced numerous questions about Putin. Likewise, the first question asked of him by a U.S. reporter on Monday during a press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was who is really running the Kremlin.
Later in the day, Obama met with civil society leaders who are calling for greater transparency and human rights in Russia, and then held a separate meeting with opposition leaders within Russia such as Garry Kasporov, who is one of many enemies of Putin to have been jailed more than once for his political activism and attempts to speak out against the Kremlin.
In his meetings with the dissidents and activists, Obama did not speak out against the Russian government, which under Putin has become increasingly authoritarian and hostile to free speech.
He did, however, praise Medvedev, who some believe is trying to undo some of the more draconian and tyrannical restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press that were imposed by Putin.
“Here in Russia, I welcome the steps that President Medvedev has taken so that civil society groups can play a more active role on behalf of the Russian people,” Obama told the civil society group.
In another signal that Obama was trying to prop up Medvedev against Putin, the president told ABC’s Jake Tapper that in 2005 Russia was “less with democracy and human rights than they were in consumption and a growing economy,” but that now “there is a growing recognition that if they want to diversify their economy, continuing to develop the entrepreneurs of the sort that I just spoke to at this graduation, that issues like rule of law, transparency, democracy are going to continue to be important.”
“I think that after the wild swings of the 90’s and the last decade or so you’re starting to see Russia balance out,” Obama said.
Obama, in yet another event with business leaders, called for increased trade between the U.S. and Russia, citing statistics that show trade between the two countries at $36 billion, which he said is only one percent of all U.S. trade and only half of what the U.S. exchanges with Thailand.
“Surely we can do better,” Obama said. “We have to promote transparency, accountability, rule of law on which investments and economic growth depend.”
“And so I welcome very much President Medvedev’s initiatives to promote the rule of law and ensure a mature and effective legal system as a condition for sustained economic growth.”
Here is video of Obama’s interview with Fox News:
Here is video of Obama and Putin:
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times