March 11, 2011

A Suggestion From Putin Throws Biden Off Balance -

A Suggestion From Putin Throws Biden Off Balance -
MOSCOW — When Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. sat down for his meeting with Vladimir V. Putin this week, the Russian prime minister opened with a curveball.
Rather than reiterating the joint projects on the table — cooperation on missile defense and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, among others — Mr. Putin cheerily suggested a brand new idea: dropping visa requirements between Russia and the United States.
Mr. Biden responded quietly, almost reflexively, “Good idea,” and Mr. Putin seized on the response, saying that tossing out visa requirements would “break all the stereotypes concerning Russia and the U.S.” He referred admiringly to Mr. Biden’s “clout” within the Obama administration and said he hoped Mr. Biden would make the case for the change in Washington.
As Mr. Biden’s advisers looked on with stunned expressions, the vice president hastily backpedaled, explaining that he did not decide such matters.
“Mr. Prime Minister, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a real difference between being president and vice president,” he said, perhaps referring to the structure of Russia’s leadership, in which Mr. Putin occupies the country’s second-highest post but is widely viewed as its paramount leader.
Then the vice president changed the subject.
Many Western news outlets let the moment pass — though the two sides are working on liberalizing visa requirements, the notion of dropping them any time soon is far-fetched. But the Russian press on Friday reported Mr. Putin’s proposal as the top news from Mr. Biden’s visit, displacing coverage of the vice president’s public criticism of Russia’s legal and political systems.
The consensus seemed to be that the prime minister had succeeded in disarming his visitor.
In the daily newspaper Kommersant, a reporter, Andrei Kolesnikov, took some liberties with Mr. Biden’s momentary loss of footing, telling readers: “‘Yes,’ said Mr. Biden, quickly writing something in his notebook (either Mr. Putin’s idea, or some phrase like, ‘Joe, get ahold of yourself! Give him a good answer! You are the vice president of a great country!’)”
Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Putin’s suggestion was probably aimed at dominating Friday’s news cycle. He described it as a “successful operation.”
“As a way to attract attention, yes, it worked,” Mr. Trenin said. “As a way to knock someone off course, maybe it also worked.”
Interactions between Mr. Putin and foreign leaders are scrutinized here as an especially revealing type of political theater. It was 10 years ago that President George W. Bush remarked warmly, after one of his first meetings with a still little-known Mr. Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
When President Obama visited Russia in July 2009, his breakfast with Mr. Putin ran for two hours, the first of which was largely an uninterrupted monologue delivered by Mr. Putin, aides said afterward.
After Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden met privately for 15 minutes in Mr. Putin’s office. On Thursday, a senior American administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the meeting as “a serious discussion about serious issues,” including cooperation on missile defense, accession to the World Trade Organization, Georgia, Afghanistan and energy policy. Later, in meetings with opposition leaders, Mr. Biden made it clear that the ice did not break between the two men, one of the people who attended told the newspaper Vedomosti.
“Biden told us that he looked into Putin’s eyes, but he did not see a soul,” said Leonid Gozman, one of the leaders of the Just Cause Party.
On Friday, Mr. Biden continued to Moldova, a former Soviet republic where a pro-Western coalition took power in 2009, displacing an old-guard Communist leadership. Addressing an overflow crowd in Opera House Square in the capital, Chisnau, where young demonstrators gathered two years ago in what became known as the “Twitter Revolution,” Mr. Biden linked Moldova’s transition to the popular uprisings that have upended North Africa and the Middle East.
He said he was glad “to be here at this transformative moment in your history, and quite frankly in the history of the world. Freedom is in the air, and democracy is emerging in countries that for generations have known nothing but authoritarian rule.”