By one account, Putin has had to rethink the shape of his cabinet because of continuing protests and so, really, has to remain in Russia. Other theories see him as peeved by the United States — when at a disadvantage, he often resorts to anti-Americanism — or avoiding the international stage at a moment when he appears thrown off stride. One insider says it would be wrong for Putin to make a U.S. trip before visiting more loyal allies.
Putin’s return to the presidency turned bumpy Sunday, when an unexpectedly large number of demonstrators gathered in Moscow to protest his inauguration the next day. The march ended in clashes with riot police and an admonition from the U.S. State Department about the mistreatment of peaceful protesters. On Tuesday, the usually compliant state Duma confronted Medvedev with questions about his accomplishments as president before approving his nomination as prime minister with a two-thirds vote — support that no doubt looked anemic to Putin, who had nominated him and rarely encounters resistance.
Putin told President Obama in a telephone conversation Wednesday that he would be too busy working on a new cabinet to leave the country next week, even though it is Medvedev’s responsibility to form a cabinet and present it to Putin for approval. The two men have also had weeks to make cabinet picks as they headed toward their long-arranged exchange of positions Monday.
And so began speculation that Putin has been mediating a battle among the key power groups that support him. High-level jobs here are widely regarded as guaranteeing access to wealth, and those who hold them must wield enough authority to protect the movement of money through their offices.
“The cabinet is about money flows, controlling them, guaranteeing them, making sure that the right people get the right measure of control,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The fact that Medvedev is being sent to Washington at a crucial time of the formation of the government is striking.”
Trenin discounted the idea that Putin was deliberately slighting Obama, pointing out that the Russian leader has agreed to meet with the U.S. president at a Group of 20 meeting in Mexico in June.
“In a country where inter-clan rivals are managed by one man, it looks like managing them this time is more difficult than people, and maybe even Putin himself, thought,” Trenin said, suggesting that Medvedev’s absence would put his supporters at a disadvantage in the jockeying for influence.