Russia Watch: Behind Putin’s smile for Kerry

When Vladimir Putin smiles, take notice.

A Russian friend once commented to me that one thing she likes 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.”

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.

Photo: Putin, May 2013:


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.


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.


(Main photo: via flickr)





James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

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 last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.