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What Will Medvedev-Putin Swap Mean for U.S.-Russia Relations?

September 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced plans to swap roles in 2012. Margeret Warner discusses what this move might mean for relations between the United States and Russia with Angela Stent of Georgetown University and Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what this means for Russia and its relationship with the United States, we turn to two long-time Russia watchers. Angela Stent directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She formerly served as chief officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. And Dmitri Trenin directs the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center. His latest book is “Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story.”

Welcome to you both.

And welcome being here in Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: Angela Stent, beginning with you, what should we make of this changeover? How big a deal is it?

ANGELA STENT, Georgetown University: Well, it’s not a very big deal in the sense that Mr. Putin has really been in charge of Russia even as prime minister, as we can now see.

But it means that we know now that the system he created is probably going to continue for the next 12 years and that we will be dealing with him as the president of Russia in terms of U.S.-Russian relations. And I think the question will be, how will he tackle the economic and the social and the political issues that Russia faces as it goes forward?

MARGARET WARNER: Dmitri Trenin, is this much of a surprise? I mean, given what Putin said about, we had — made this agreement several years ago, was the fix in from the start?

DMITRI TRENIN, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, it is not — it is a surprise and it isn’t. It’s not a surprise that Putin has decided to come back to the Kremlin as president.

Everyone understood that it was Putin’s decision to make. He could have re-appointed Medvedev. He could have decided — and in fact he did decide — to go back to the Kremlin himself. What was interesting and somewhat surprising was the decision by Putin to appoint Medvedev as prime minister.

And I think that many people had not been thinking about that. Many people took it by surprise. And some people simply rejected the notion of serving Prime Minister Medvedev. And we’re talking about Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was mentioned in your program just a few minutes ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, how different are the two? I mean, did Medvedev chart any kind of independent course that is now going to be abandoned?

ANGELA STENT: Medvedev made some very eloquent speeches about the need to modernize, the need to get rid of corruption, and the need to have Russia move into the 21st century, but he really didn’t do very much. He never built up his own base of people who were working with him. He was working mainly with Putin holdovers.

So, I don’t really think there is that much difference between the two of them.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, why would, say, Kudrin not want to work with him?

ANGELA STENT: Because Mr. Kudrin has had differences of opinions with Mr. Medvedev about some of his economic policies. He wants to spend more government money. Mr. Kudrin is a fiscal conservative and, by the way, is very well-regarded, both in the West and in Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s talk about U.S.-Russia relations. What difference, if any, will this make and mean for U.S.-Russia relations, the Obama administration, which invested so much in cultivating a relationship with Medvedev?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, first of all, I think that although the Obama administration invested in Medvedev as president, they always kept at the back of their mind the notion that the top man in Russia was Mr. Putin.

MARGARET WARNER: The power behind the throne, essentially.

DMITRI TRENIN: The power behind and above the throne.

MARGARET WARNER: Above?

(LAUGHTER)

DMITRI TRENIN: Right. So it may be fun to be president. It may be more fun to have the president work for you.

So, the Obama administration had to deal with Medvedev overtly and with Putin in some other ways. Now, this is becoming more streamlined, more straightforward. And the only problem is that Mr. Putin, rather than Mr. Medvedev, will be the official partner of the United States’ president.

And that is important because, in part, the reset was successful because the name of the Russian president wasn’t Vladimir Putin. Now Vladimir Putin is back. And some people have to rethink what that means and how to address Putin now in his capacity as not only the informal, but also the formal leader of the Russian Federation.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Angela Stent, pick up on that in terms of, how much business really was done between the U.S. and Russia in the Medvedev time? I mentioned a couple of things.

ANGELA STENT: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And would Putin continue down that path, or do you think there may be a difference?

ANGELA STENT: Well, I think we and the Russians have common interests. And we have managed to work on these since President Obama and President Medvedev were in office.

You mentioned those. We have the New START arms control agreement, cooperation on Iran. And the most important thing for the U.S. now is the cooperation on Afghanistan. The more problematic Pakistan becomes — and, of course, you have reported very interestingly from there — the more Russia is important in terms of transporting military and other supplies to Afghanistan.

And the Russians also have an interest in seeing that we don’t fail in Afghanistan and leave too quickly. Now, having said that, the easy parts of this reset have been done. And the next set of issues, they are more complicated. And they have to do with more arms control. They have to do with missile defense cooperation, which is problematic, and with issues like Iran.

And I think the other thing to remember is that, in the U.S.-Russian relationship, in the last 20 years, the relationship between the leaders is important, because we don’t have that many stakeholders. There’s not that much depth to that relationship yet. And, therefore, it will be important for President Obama and President-Putin-to-be — to develop a workable, close — a workable relationship at least.

And they have met once in July of 2009. And that was a tough meeting. So I think that who occupies the chair in the Kremlin is important. I think we can still cooperate, but it’s not to be quite as easy as it’s been in the last three years.

MARGARET WARNER: What is the buzz you hear in Moscow about the Obama-Putin relationship? As Angela Stent just said, they only had one huge meeting, which was the one when President Obama went to Russia on that summit trip.

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that the meeting was tough, as you describe it. But I think that…

MARGARET WARNER: But he — basically, as I recall, Putin basically harangued President Obama about the litany of unhappiness.

DMITRI TRENIN: Harangued is one way of putting that. He basically told Obama what was on his mind. He basically told Obama that he and Russia had certain complaints. He and Russia had certain views that collided with the views at least of the previous administration in the U.S.

Obama took that calmly. He took that on board. And I think that Putin was satisfied by that. I think that that was a test for the reset in Putin’s eyes. And, in Putin’s eyes, Obama had passed that test. And Medvedev was given the go-ahead to continue.

MARGARET WARNER: And you met — you were part of a group that met with then Prime Minister Medvedev — I mean, Putin last year.

ANGELA STENT: Putin, right.

So, last September, a group of us met with Mr. Putin. And he had some very complimentary things to say about President Obama. The previous year, when our group had met with him, he was somewhat more skeptical about Obama. But, last year, he was very complimentary.

And that already led, I think some of us to believe that maybe he was looking to his return as president and to having a better relationship with President Obama, including saying that they had both been under unfair criticism from their populations for things that had happened that really weren’t their fault. So…

MARGARET WARNER: But is it fair to say, Dmitri Trenin, that — briefly, that President-to-be Putin is a bit more of a hard-liner even than Medvedev on things like, for instance, the missile defense system that the U.S. would like to help NATO build against Iranian missiles?

DMITRI TRENIN: Margaret, I think we need to be under no illusion that all the major decisions in Russia have been taken by Putin or with Putin’s support.

And, also, Putin has a reputation of a hard-liner, which makes it easier for him to push through some hard decisions. And that may be a boon for U.S.-Russian relations in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I’m sure we will all hope that you’re both right.

Dmitry Medvedev and Angela Stent, thank you so much.

DMITRI TRENIN: Thank you.