Putin's invite to Obama: a formality or a good omen?
Many in Moscow see Putin's invitation to Obama to visit Russia as diplomatic decorum unlikely to warm a chilly relationship. But others suggest that the Russian leader may be ready to deal.
(Page 2 of 2)
"I hope that he will adopt the same approach during his second term," he said.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Russians vs. Putin
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the relationship has bogged down over the past year, as talks over missile defense went nowhere and Russia accused the US of backing the anti-Kremlin street protests that erupted last December. In recent months the Kremlin has accused the US Agency for International Development of interfering with Russian politics and unexpectedly terminated 20 years of cooperation in the Nunn-Lugar initiative to dismantle former Soviet weapons of mass destruction.
"Disagreements between the US and Russia on the bilateral agenda are too deep-seated and complicated to allow for any big breakthroughs, no matter how friendly the coming meeting between Obama and Putin may turn out to be," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant.
"It comes down to mutual trust, which is absent. Putin may wish to build a better relationship with Obama, but many of the things he does work the opposite way.... You may say we no longer needed USAID or Nunn-Lugar, but the abrupt ending of those projects produced a very bad taste, and undeniably hurt the actual, existing relationship. Putin may feel like he needs to change the atmospherics, show that he's a democratic leader and not an isolated autocrat. But it's just going through motions," Mr. Strokan says.
There are other straws in the wind that suggest Putin may be seeking to cultivate a more liberal image. After months of tightening screws on Russia's internal opposition, Putin suddenly sent out a softer signal Monday by telling the Kremlin's newly reconfigured Human Rights Council that he would review draconian new laws that would force foreign-funded nongovernmental groups to register as "foreign agents" – due to come into effect next week – as well as a law drastically increasing penalties for "defamation," a bill currently before the State Duma that would effectively criminalize blasphemy, and other measures that triggered widespread concerns.
On the other hand, Putin on Wednesday signed a controversial new law that would redefine "treason" in ways that will greatly increase the vulnerability of almost any Russian who works closely with international organizations or foreign media.
One thing all experts agree on, it is Putin who sets the tone and makes all the key decisions in Russia.
"During Putin's election campaign earlier this year, he played the anti-American card in his rhetoric quite a lot," says Markov.
"He did that for good reasons. Most of the Russian public is suspicious of the US and its intentions, and Putin also wanted to discredit some of his political opponents as being too pro-Western. It worked, but now Putin feels it's time for a course correction," he adds.
"It's also true that Obama, being under attack from Mitt Romney for being too soft on Russia, had to limit his movements in the direction of Moscow. But now we're past all that. Both men are free to act. You will see things happen."