Putin's New A-Team

Putin's New A-Team

What the current Russian ambassador’s return to Moscow really means.

Ambassador Yuri Ushakov's appointment as Vladimir Putin's deputy chief of staff responsible for foreign-policy and international economic issues-a new position in the Russian prime minister's office-demonstrates that Mr. Putin intends to play a significant foreign-policy role in his new post as prime minister. As one senior Russian official explained to me recently in Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev will have principal responsibility for the "strategic direction" of Russian foreign policy, but Russia's constitution assigns "foreign policy implementation" to the prime minister.

Putin's own prime ministers did not employ this authority, though one of Boris Yeltsin's-Yevgeny Primakov-became an important force in shaping Russian international conduct during his tenure from 1998-99. Primakov's midair U-turn over the Atlantic, aborting a planned meeting with then-Vice President Al Gore to protest the U.S.-orchestrated NATO attack on Yugoslavia, dramatically illustrated his role. Still, Primakov's U-turn and his broader sense of independence in policy matters (including during parliamentary discussions of Yeltsin's impeachment) clearly contributed to the insecure and declining President Yeltsin's decision to remove him. Of course, both the Kremlin and the Russian White House, where Putin's new offices are located, argue that the new Medvedev-Putin power-sharing arrangement will be much more harmonious and stable.

To the extent that any single individual may make a difference, Ushakov's appointment may contribute to their success-at least in his area of responsibility. An experienced career diplomat, Ushakov became well-known to both Putin and Medvedev during his nine-and-a-half-year tenure as Russia's ambassador to the United States and has a good relationship with both of them. Medvedev's foreign-policy assistant, Sergei Prikhodko, is a former close colleague of Ushakov's from the Foreign Ministry's Department of European Cooperation, where they both worked in the 1990s.

Several Russian media accounts have suggested that Ushakov's new position is a "demotion" for Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. However, all of the accounts seem to be based on the same May 30 article in the Russian business newspaper Kommersant, which describes relationships between officials in the Russian government but, curiously, bases these assessments on an unnamed source "close to the State Department in Washington"-unusual sourcing for a Russian paper writing about Moscow intrigues. Kommersant claims that Ushakov and Lavrov are known to be "old rivals" because they allegedly competed to replace Igor Ivanov as foreign minister in 2004. However, I have met with both Lavrov and Ushakov a number of times during the last several years and have always felt that their relationship was quite professional and indeed good. Moreover, those who know both well say that they worked effectively side by side as respectively ambassador to the United States in Washington and ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Contrary to Kommersant's report, there were no signs of competition during those years and Ushakov later clearly enjoyed Lavrov's support as a key communication channel between Moscow and Washington after Lavrov became foreign minister. My assumption is that all three men-Lavrov, Ushakov and Prikhodko-will genuinely want to work constructively together. And their superiors, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, certainly expect the same.

Whether good intentions will be sufficient to ensure harmony is, of course, another matter. The Russian government is undeniably entering uncharted waters: it now has a strong president with predominant constitutional powers and a strong prime minister who not only selected Medvedev as his successor and is his longtime mentor, but also commands an overwhelming majority in the Russian parliament as chairman of the ruling United Russia party. Both leaders worked hard to have interlocking teams to assure consultation and coordination-but during my visit to Moscow two weeks ago, it was already clear that a number of their subordinates were eager to assure that their principal would look better, get more credit and hold greater authority.

Whatever happens within the black box of the Russian government, it would be a mistake for the United States and for the West in general to expect that Russia's transition will bring major changes in Russian conduct without Moscow receiving anything in return. As a senior official put it to me, there will clearly be a change in style, because no two leaders are the same, and there will be some new opportunities if for no other reason than the fact that domestic changes require new foreign-policy approaches. But hope that Medvedev will feel inclined to "prove himself" to the United States and the European Union is likely to be misplaced; there is no evidence that he is ashamed of Russia's conduct or that he believes he must distance himself from Putin's foreign-policy record. Medvedev's statements last week in Berlin and over the weekend at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum-suggesting that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia could have serious consequences and that U.S. "economic egoism" is to blame for global economic troubles-certainly point toward considerable continuity in Russian foreign policy.

While Kommersant tried to describe Ushakov as a hard-liner of Yevgeny Primakov's school, those who know Ushakov well-in Washington and in Moscow-are more likely to describe him as a diplomat committed to promoting U.S.-Russian cooperation. The (U.S.) White House was exactly right in its statement after Ushakov's farewell meeting with President Bush describing the Russian ambassador's "critical role in increasing mutual understanding between the United States and Russia."

Of course, no ambassador can be effective unless he assertively promotes the interests and the perspectives of his country, and Russia's interests and perspectives during recent years have often clashed with Bush administration policies and the conventional wisdom in Washington. This was a challenge not only for Ushakov, but for his excellent U.S. counterpart, Ambassador to Moscow Bill Burns, who is now serving as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

America's next president will inherit these challenges and will need to decide how to approach them. But it is already clear that speculating about the "real" Medvedev, the "real" Putin or their "real" relationship cannot be a substitute for understanding Russian interests-and not our definition of Russian interests, but Russian definitions of Russian interests. If the United States is able to develop this understanding, and to get its own priorities straight in vigorously promoting American interests, pragmatic professionals like Yuri Ushakov, Bill Burns and others in both countries may indeed contribute to a more-effective U.S.-Russian relationship.


Dimitri K. Simes is the president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest.