MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin’s decision to skip the Group of Eight summit at Camp David next week suggests that Russia’s strong-man president has encountered unfamiliar challenges in the first days of his new term, compelling him to hunker down and demonstrate here and abroad who is in charge.
Only Putin himself really knows why he chose to send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the long-planned summit in his place, but the fast-moving and unpredictable events in Moscow over the past few days have clearly provoked intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
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.
Medvedev’s unimpressive confirmation vote probably set off a reappraisal of the cabinet jobs, especially for police and other “power” ministries, said Mark Galeotti, a longtime student of Russian security issues who is the academic chairman of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.
The persistence of the demonstrators also alarmed some in the Kremlin who thought the protesters were effete hipsters easily intimidated by a heavy police presence, Galeotti said.
“The protest movement has made the issue of who heads the power ministries — and especially the Interior Ministry — suddenly even more significant,” he said, noting that it has exacerbated the tension between forces that want a harsh crackdown and those that want to engage the opposition. “All the ministries are sources of money. You use them to maintain your controls, but they’re also sources of economic power.”
Putin was probably also irritated by what he sees as outside encouragement for the protesters, especially by the United States, and thought he would appear weak at the G-8, Galeotti said.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a longtime political analyst, suggested that Putin had many reasons for anger and had to take it out on someone.
“My reading of this is that Mr. Putin was so obsessed with the unfavorable reaction of Muscovites to his coronation that he had to find some whipping boys,” he said. Even though Putin handpicked Medvedev for the presidency in 2008 after running up against term limits, he resented Medvedev’s ascent, Piontkovsky said.
“Kicking Mr. Medvedev off to America just when he is supposed to be deciding on the cabinet demonstrates to everyone, to the public, to the elites, to everyone seeking any kind of position, that he’s the boss and he’s the only person who matters,” the analyst added.
Such theories were dismissed by Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, who has been a Kremlin adviser. Putin made a logical decision, Markov said, considering that his first foreign visits should be to his most important allies. That means he should first visit a member of Russia’s customs union (a visit to Kazakhstan is in the works), then the European Union, next China (planned for next month), and only then the United States.
“It would be the wrong signal to the international community to suggest the U.S. as his number one priority,” Markov said.
And don’t forget, said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, the demonstrators who are improbably roaming the streets of Moscow.
“The situation is not stable,” he said. “The authorities control the situation, but the decision has been made that it’s better for the president to stay in Russia for a while.”