West Baffled by 2 Heads for Russian Government
WASHINGTON — When Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, rushed to Moscow earlier this month to mediate the crisis over Georgia, he found the new Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, to be calm, even sanguine about prospects for a solution.
But the tone was wildly different when Mr. Sarkozy heard from Vladimir V. Putin, the president-turned-prime minister. According to a private report that Mr. Sarkozy later delivered to President Bush, Mr. Putin was virulent in denouncing Georgian actions as atrocities, and he expressed such deep antipathy toward Georgian leaders that it made the war seem personal.
Mr. Sarkozy's report, made in a telephone call to President Bush on Aug. 13, has added to a sense of bewilderment in Washington about how to deal with what is now a two-headed government in Moscow — with Mr. Putin, still the dominant partner, occupying what is technically the subservient role.
American and European officials say there is no doubt that it is Mr. Putin who maintains the real power, making the decisions on how to prosecute and conclude the conflict. But they have felt compelled to follow diplomatic protocol that requires them to focus their negotiating efforts on Mr. Medvedev, who succeeded Mr. Putin in May to become the head of state.
"This is a strange couple," a French official said of Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin, after insisting on anonymity because the discussion with Mr. Sarkozy was supposed to be private.
American officials concede that they do not completely understand the balance of power within the Russian leadership. They tiptoe around the question of whether there really are significant policy differences between the Russian leaders, or whether the conflicting signals simply reflect the men's characters and temperaments. It is possible, they say, that the Russian leaders are very much in sync but playing a Kremlin version of "good cop-bad cop."
But while it was Mr. Medvedev who signed the cease-fire agreement that calls for Russia to withdraw its forces from Georgia, it remains far from clear whether Moscow will comply fully with that accord. On Wednesday, Russian military forces were still shoring up positions inside Georgia. Some American officials suggested that Mr. Medvedev might have been overruled by Mr. Putin, who may not share Mr. Medvedev's apparent concern about the impact of the war on Russia's finances, markets and trade relations.
Of course, the conflict in Georgia is primarily rooted in borders and ethnicity, wounded Russian pride and global power politics. But the challenges of dealing with Russia's two-headed rule have certainly added an odd new element to the crisis.
"You have Putin's war, and it seemed for a moment, you had Medvedev's peace," said Sarah E. Mendelson, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's hard to say. Clearly Putin's in control." She added, "It's certainly complicating the diplomacy."
Ever since Mr. Medvedev was inaugurated May 7, after an election in which all significant opposition candidates were either kept off the ballot or limited in campaigning, the United States and other nations have deferred to him as the head of state. They did so even as it was clear that Mr. Putin would remain a significant political force — if not the de facto leader — in his role as prime minister.
But the war with Georgia has made that pretense far more difficult to sustain. Even as the first Russian troops, tanks and missiles were pouring into South Ossetia and Georgia on Aug. 8, Mr. Bush twice confronted Mr. Putin in person while both were in Beijing, first at a social lunch and then at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
He spoke with Mr. Medvedev the next day by telephone; since then the highest American contacts have been between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as the French president, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and others have taken the lead roles in mediating the conflict.
A French official who described the conversations that involved Mr. Sarkozy in Moscow said Mr. Medvedev was never apologetic over Russian actions in Georgia. But the official said Mr. Medvedev was more composed and quieter than Mr. Putin, who was bombastic and negative.
Mr. Sarkozy described to Mr. Bush how Mr. Medvedev was "less emotional about everything." Mr. Putin's comments about Georgia and its American-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, were taken as nothing short of outright hatred.
Another sign that Mr. Medvedev's authority was limited emerged even before the Georgia crisis, after the Russian president joined leaders of other Group of 8 industrialized nations in Japan to sign a statement criticizing Zimbabwe for the sham election held after weeks of violence. Within days, Russia then reversed course, using its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block actions that would have punished Zimbabwe for its stance.
In highlighting differences between the Russian leaders, American and European officials may be seeking to elevate Mr. Medvedev, who had been viewed as a more conciliatory negotiating partner. And there is clearly an element of American needling. "President Medvedev at one point, just a few weeks ago, laid out a very hopeful vision for Russia's interaction with the rest of the world, one in which Russia would be respected and accepted for its commerce and its technology and its scientific prowess and its culture," Ms. Rice said told CBS News this week. "And to instead have activities that hearken back to another time, when all that the Soviet Union had was its military power, it's really a sad state of affairs for Russia."
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was asked whether Mr. Putin, even as prime minister, was still in charge in Russia. "He clearly, as far as I'm concerned, has the upper hand right now," Mr. Gates told ABC News on Sunday.
"There had been a lot of signals from Putin that he was going to allow power to stay with the president, that Medvedev would be in charge, would be the person responsible for leading Russia going forward," Mr. Gates said. "Steps he's taken in the transition from president to prime minister and in recent weeks and now certainly in Georgia, at least in my opinion, bespeak more of Putin having his hand on the steering wheel than anybody else."
Even internally, the Russians have sent conflicting signals about who is in charge. State media focused on Mr. Putin in the early days of the conflict, only to later give more prominence to Mr. Medvedev, who delivered blistering remarks on Monday in Vladikavkaz, the staging city for Russian forces operating in Georgia, just as Mr. Putin had on Aug. 9.
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