In the Arena

Russian Autumn

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There is probably less than meets the eye in substantive terms to the recent Russian intransigence on a sanctions regime for Iran. Vladimir Putin merely said that talk of additional sanctions was “premature”–and if the New York Times report cited in my post below can be credited, Putin is right.

But there’s something else going on with the Russians, which may indicate a subtle but significant mistake the Obama Administration has made in dealing with the Russian leadership.

Which raises the question: who is the actual leader of Russia? Dmitri Medvedev has the title; Putin has the power, it seems. Are they on the same page? Well, perhaps not–they may run against each other for President in 2012, when Putin is eligible again. And there has been some sentiment within the State Department to exploit the rivalry between the two. If so, we may betting the wrong horse.

Medvedev has been the softer of the two. He made some encouraging remarks about the possibility of sanctions against Iran (then quickly backtracked). And most of the Obama Administration’s personal contacts have been with him, not Putin. A good part of this is unavoidable–Obama and Medvedev keep on bumping into each other, and having bilateral talks, at meetings like the G-20 and the UN General Assembly. Putin may not be enjoying the back seat he has taken. And his absence from Moscow–and tougher comments–during Hillary Clinton’s visit this week may be sending a signal: You need to talk to me.

An experienced diplomat told me yesterday that it might be wise for Obama to invite Putin to Washington soonest. He would have to invite Medvedev as well, lest the actual President feel dissed. But if progress is to be made with the Russians, it seems clear that the Administration is going to have to walk a delicate tightrope and remain on good terms with both their leaders.

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