I told you so…

{November 10, 2008}   For Russia’s Putin, knockabout with Obama is just the ticket

Still Russia’s dominant politician, Vladimir Putin can only relish the prospect of a new bout of Russian-US rivalry with American leader-in-waiting Barack Obama, say analysts.While much of the world celebrated Obama’s US presidential win, a stony-faced Russian reaction was a reminder of Cold War-style tensions between Washington and Moscow.

On the Internet, Russian bloggers portrayed the victory of a black candidate as evidence of American decline. On an official level, President Dmitry Medvedev chose the day of Obama’s win to announce the deployment of short-range missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost in Europe.  They waited for this day because of fear of the McCain camps possoble win.

Numerous analysts said Medvedev’s response was clearly authored by Putin, no longer president himself but powerful in the prime minister’s post and long the spearhead of Russian attacks on the United States.

“Putin is of course number one in this tandem,” said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the US Heritage Foundation, a research centre.

The announcement of missile deployments to Kaliningrad is meant “to test Obama — whether he really is a strong and efficient leader,” said Volk.

Although he stood down as president in May in accordance with the constitution, Putin has kept a high profile.

He has released a judo training video, has “saved” a group of journalists from a loose Siberian tiger using a tranquilizer dart, and still meets world leaders such as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi, whom he hosted this month in the Kremlin.

Analysts said Putin’s natural role was in baiting a United States cast by state media in the role of aggressor and that the 56-year-old could return to Russia’s presidency.

Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, who currently works at Washington’s Hudson Institute, said Putin was beset by economic worries in the prime minister’s post and wanted to “flee” for the safety of the presidency, a tsar-like role generally seen as beyond criticism.

Media speculation that Medvedev could step down to make way for Putin mounted this week when Medvedev said he wanted to extend presidential terms to six years.

Presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich insisted Medvedev would carry on, possibly into a second term in 2012.

Unconvinced, Piontkovsky said Putin’s “economic magic has ended. So he wants to leave the post of prime minister and concentrate on fighting American imperialism.”

Volk said the Russian perception of Obama was of a politician inexperienced in foreign affairs who might be made to back down on US plans to place missile defence facilities in eastern Europe, which Moscow has portrayed as a threat.

This perception of a weak Obama was driven home on Saturday by a photograph on the front page of the Kommersant newspaper that showed his humiliating detention at an airport in the Ural Mountains on a 2005 visit he made as part of a nuclear disarmament programme.

In similar vein, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets featured reminiscences of Obama’s tour, saying “for a large part of his visit, Obama kept quiet and smiled.”

Volk said Russia would follow up last week’s threats with further high-profile shows of strength.

Putin last week dispatched a trusted lieutenant, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, to Cuba and Venezuela to prepare a presidential tour of South America this month that is likely to rankle Washington.

While Cuba does not figure on Medvedev’s itinerary, he is due to oversee joint naval exercises off the coast of Venezuela, amid US worries about Russian arms supplies to Venezuela.

For Moscow-based political columnist Dmitry Oreshkin, confrontation with a belligerent United States has become an essential tactic for Russia’s authoritarian leadership to deflect discontent at home.

The arrival of a more conciliatory US leader could therefore be seen as a challenge for Putin and his team.

While many Russians suspect “another cunning trick to deceive Russia,” he said, there are others who are “not delighted by the actions of Medvedev and Putin and who realise the government is theatre.”


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