Behind Putin’s Smile for Kerry

Posted May 8th, 2013 at 4:07 pm (UTC+0)

At the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin musters a welcoming smile Tuesday for visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintains the tradition glum visage, perfected by his mentor, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s Cold War Foreign Minister who was often called: ‘Grim Grom.” Photo: Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev

When Vladimir Putin smiles, take notice.

A Russian friend once commented to me that one thing she like about her president is that he does not smile in public.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin spent much of the day displaying on TV the thin-lipped sneer he adopts when playing the Good Czar berating the Bad Boyars. He marked his first year back in the Kremlin by berating his cabinet for falling short of meeting goals.

The first impact of this tongue lashing came Wednesday with the resignation Vladislav Surkov, a deputy prime minister and political architect of what he called Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”

Kerry’s visit to Moscow coincided with preparations for Russia’s celebration of the Soviet Union’s May 9, 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. On Tuesday, his arrival at Moscow’s Ritz Carlton was delayed for 30 minutes by tanks and rocket carriers maneuvering in a rehearsal for the Red Square military parade. Photo: Reuters/Mladen Antonov

On Tuesday evening, President Putin’s next televised encounter should have elicited more grimaces from Russia’s stern ruler. It was with John Kerry, the new U.S. Secretary of State.

Only one year ago, while campaigning for President, Prime Minister Putin accused the U.S. State Department of funding and organizing mass opposition street rallies. A favorite protest chant was: “Russia Without Putin.”

On returning to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin devoted one year to methodically cutting U.S. influence here. He expelled USAID and an alphabet soup of American programs dating back to the 1990s. He signed a law requiring non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funds to register as “foreign agents.”

But Russia’s protest movement is not dead. Twenty-four hours before Kerry and Putin met, 15,000 protesters gathered on an island across from the Kremlin. Once again, they chanted “Russia Without Putin.” And Russia’s president knew that on Wednesday, the Secretary of State was scheduled to meet with leaders of Russia’s beleaguered NGOs.

So on Tuesday night, as the Kremlin TV pool camera rolled, it was a surprise to see President Putin force the left and right sides up his mouth, up, up, up into, yes, a :).

Countries don’t have friends. They have interests.

Presidents often don’t have friends. President Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Putin knows these rules better than most.

Putin has a public image of a stern taskmaster. Here he presides over a Cabinet meeting. Photo: Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn

Of the eight heads of government posing in the 2000 G-8 class photo, he is the only leader still in power.

So why did Putin give a beaming welcome to the U.S. Secretary of State? Why did Russia’s president then spend two and a half hours in a closed door meeting with Kerry, the rank equivalent of a foreign minister?

The Kremlin wants to do business. And the time is now.

The Kremlin feels the landscape has been cleared of the 1990s legacy dependency relationships with the U.S. Putin feels he can now deal with Washington as an equal, mano-a-mano, eye to eye.

The Kremlin wants things. The agenda is long – from blunting U.S. missile defense, to managing the American exit from Afghanistan, to protecting their stakes in Syria. Hours after Kerry was wheels up from Moscow on Wednesday, Putin met with Russia’s Security Council to plot defense of Central Asia and southern Russia after a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.

Putin also wants the international prestige of bilateral meetings with the U.S. president. The two presidents will meet during the June 17-18 G8 meeting at a golf resort in Northern Ireland. President Putin also has invited President Obama to Moscow immediately prior to attending this year’s G-20 meeting, in St. Petersburg in Sept. 5-6.

The White House has confirmed Northern Ireland meeting next month and President Obama’s attendance at the G-20. But last May, President Putin stood up President Obama at last year’s G-8 meeting at Camp David. The Kremlin knows plans can change.

From the American side, officials have let the Russians know that a four-month clock is now ticking.

If real achievements are not on the horizon by mid-September, President Obama will step back. He will hand the U.S-Russia relationship off to lesser ranking officials.

Kerry enjoying the summer sunshine on Red Square in front of St. Basil’s cathedral. Let’s see if the warm temperatures that US-Russia relations. Photo: Reuters/Mladen Antonov

America’s second term president is in legacy mode. Meetings for the sake of meetings is not Obama’s path to a place in history books.
So how to read Putin’s smile?

The Kremlin now is in transactional mode. It seeks to do business on geopolitical issues that concern Russia – the end of the civil war in Syria, international participation in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, containment of Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions without military attacks, and curbs on American missile defense programs.

The Kremlin is shifting gears, from anti-Americanism to “let’s make a deal.”

Kerry’s brief visit to Russia coincided with the end of Moscow’s four-day spring, and the kickoff of its 120-day summer.

Let’s see what is achieved by summer’s end, at the Putin-Obama meeting in St. Petersburg next September.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 responses to “Behind Putin’s Smile for Kerry”

  1. Gennady says:

    I like the prophetic tone of the article in reading what has been behind Mr. Putin’s smile.
    The article very tactfully avoids any hint to reasons for such a dramatic change in Mr. Putin’s posture.
    Till recently it was an open hostility to the West and the USA and now his brand new smile and readiness to cooperate with the USA.
    Really, the Kremlin now is in transactional mood as it recognized that it’s better to be late than never, that the policy of tough approach to the West in the globalized world hasn’t worked and was counterproductive. Actually it has worked to the detriment of the preservation of the FSB regime in Russia.
    To the regime disappointment, the outer world has managed its affairs without the tough Kremlin’s ruler.
    Even more. The severe economic and international threats looming for Russia serve as an ill omen that the regime change will happen contrary to all opposing efforts unless U-turn is performed.
    But I’m unsure if Russia under Mr. Putin has already passed the point of no return in its relations with the West and this delayed U-turn in anti-American stance has happened after the irreversible damage had already been done.

  2. Interesting.

    The U.S. film version of Gogol’s classic novel, has always interested me; as does the novel, and it’s author.

    Was Gogol Russian: Chechian; Dagestani; Caucasian, or Russian?.

    What difference do his origins make, and how did they influence how he depicted Chechia, in his classic novel: ‘The Inspector General’?

    How does the U.S. Film with Danny Kaye, reflect, or distort Gogol’s noel; and, especially if it alters the novel, did it do so in such a way, as to more fairly depict the relevant period in the history of the area?

  3. Gennady says:

    To Ciaran Mulcahy

    Thank you for your excellent question.
    Strictly speaking, the Great Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol was neither Chechen; Dagestan; Caucasian, nor Russian.
    He was born to Ukrainian/Polish parents, residing on Poltava soil of Ukraine that was under the Russian Empire governance at the start of XIX century.
    He never wrote novel of “The Inspector General”.
    The title you have mentioned relates to the musical comedy film produced in Hollywood and loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s satirical play “The Government Inspector” (also known as the play of “The Inspector General”) that was published in 1836.
    The plot of the Hollywood comedy you’ve referred to was re-located from the Russian Empire into unspecified corrupted region of a country under the rule of the First French Empire.
    In his masterpiece play N.Gogol portrayed the extensive political corruption of Imperial Russia. Although about 180 years have passed since then, the content of the play is absolutely relevant to Russia of 2013 being ruled by Mr. Putin and his associates.
    Certainly, N. Gogol was conscious of national issues but in his play he didn’t touch upon them and didn’t mention Chechnya at all.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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