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Obama's Russia Gamble

Joshua A. Tucker, an associate professor of politics at NYU, is a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a co-author of the political science and policy blog The Monkey Cage.

One of the most interesting/confusing features about contemporary Russian politics is the question of who is really in charge of the executive branch of the government, which for the most part is really the only branch in Russia that matters these days. In terms of formal, institutional powers, Russia is clearly a presidential system, with some political scientists calling it a "super-presidential" system, due to the exceedingly strong powers of the Russian president. However, since the accession of Dmitri Medvedev to the presidency and the movement of Vladimir Putin into the position of prime minister, this fundamental aspect of Russian politics has been called into question. Most of the Western mainstream media has gravitated toward the view that Putin remains firmly in control and Medvedev is little more than a puppet. The principals themselves insist that they work together seamlessly in what has been called a "tandemocracy". Others, however, have continued to suggest that institutions matter, even in Russia, and that to think that Medvedev is powerless would be a mistake. Obama needs to understand this dynamic in crafting his Russia policy.

Of course, all of this only matters if Medvedev and Putin hold different preferences, another topic of great speculation among Russia watchers. Perhaps the single greatest fault line between the two that has been suggested has been a belief that Medvedev may ultimately be more of a true believer in the rule of law than Putin, and therefore more receptive of the idea of restrained (e.g., liberal) state as a means to fostering prosperity in Russia.

Intriguingly, several of President Obama's actions related to his current trip to Moscow suggest that he may share this view of Medvedev--and is conducting his Russia outreach accordingly. The most obvious example of this was his pointed comment in an Associated Press interview before the visit that "I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new," which explicitly drew a contrast between Putin and Medvedev. We can also see this approach in Obama's speech today at the New Economic School. Not only did he mention the rule of law three times in the course of the speech, but the very first time he mentioned it, he immediately followed it by noting, "As President Medvedev has rightly said, a mature and effective legal system is a condition for sustained economic development." Indeed, the very choice of the New Economic School--a private institution with an unquestionable reputation for academic freedom--as a venue for Obama's major public speech can be interpreted as a subtle dig against Putin's vision of a statist Russia.

To be sure, Obama has couched his strategy inside a larger attempt to combat perceptions of Americans as insensitive to the needs or desires of Russians that became especially pronounced in Russia during the later years of the Bush administration. The text of Obama's speech today is filled with praiseworthy words about Russia, Russian history, the contributions of Russia to world society, etc. It clearly is in line with previous speeches by Obama as an attempt to change the view of America internationally from a country that is impervious of the needs of others to one that respects the contributions of and challenges faced by other nations. Thus the blows Obama has thrown at Putin have had to be subtle, and balanced by the separate meeting today with Putin and praiseworthy words for Putin as well as Medvedev in yesterday's press conference. Indeed, the Associated Press comment prior to the visit was probably not subtle enough.

But make no mistake, trying to exploit potential rifts between Medvedev and Putin is a bit of a gamble on Obama's part. And this is coming from someone who believes that U.S. national security interest will at worst not be harmed and at best can be helped by US actions that strengthen Medvedev at the expense of Putin, as I have previously written in The New Republic. If Obama is wrong, and Putin really is calling the shots, the U.S. attempts to favor Medvedev at Putin's expense may have negative reverberations on U.S.-Russian relations in the future. But if Obama is right, and Medvedev does indeed have independent power and preferences, then the President of the United States may very well have cleverly sent an important message to the President of Russia: We can indeed work together in a way that benefits both of us.

--Joshua Tucker