Forget the nuke deal, forget the speech, forget, even, the Russians' lack of interest in Michelle: The real surprise of President Obama's trip to Moscow this week was that he spent most of his time talking to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, taking only a couple of hours out to pay a courtesy call to Russian Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin.
Almost anywhere else in the world, this sort of thing would be a matter of protocol: Generally speaking, the American head of state spends most of his time with other heads of state when he travels abroad. (Exceptions are made for those countries in which the head of state is a monarch or a figurehead—in which case, he pays a courtesy call to the crown and then hangs around with the chancellor or the prime minister.) If he were following that pattern in Russia, he would have spent most of his time with Putin.
Yes, Medvedev is the president and, yes, the Russian Constitution theoretically gives the president the lion's share of power. But ever since his profoundly undemocratic election last year (following his selection by Putin and the orchestrated parody of a campaign that followed) it has been abundantly clear that the Russian president is not in charge. After the invasion of Georgia, it was Putin, not Medvedev, who negotiated behind the scenes. During the Ukrainian gas crisis, it was Putin, not Medvedev, who spoke for Russia. Those who have watched the two men together generally come away impressed by Medvedev's exceptional deference to the prime minister. Someone who took part in a meeting with them told me afterward that Putin did all the talking while Medvedev took notes.
In recent months, in fact, Medvedev has chosen to play a kind of "good cop" role to Putin's "bad cop," giving an interview to the last remaining opposition newspaper, saying nice things about democracy and electoral reform, and even smiling, on occasion, in photographs with foreign leaders. But none of this has resulted in any profound change in foreign policy, the economy, or human rights, leading most observers inside and outside the country to assume Medvedev is playing his part in an elaborate public-relations campaign.
The decision to focus the American president's visit on Medvedev instead of Putin could therefore be what British civil servants call "very brave," not least of all because if you don't talk to the person who's really in charge then you can't expect to get much done. As I understand it, though, this decision was taken at least partly on pragmatic grounds: Meetings with Putin nowadays tend to turn into extended rants about Russia's grievances (this week's breakfast meeting apparently being no exception), which doesn't leave much time to pursue productive conversation. Since Putin isn't going to get into the subject of Russia's recent military maneuvering on the Georgian border (thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks began exercising there at the end of June), and since Medvedev seemingly can't do much about it in any case, the U.S. administration seems to have figured that there wasn't much point in dealing with the issue at all. Instead, it dealt with less controversial subjects—nuclear-arms reductions (which mostly would have happened anyway), fly-over rights for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan (which are apparently useful but not crucial)—that Medvedev might actually be able to sort out.
The upside of this policy is that it might actually reinforce Medvedev's position—though I would call that a naive and forlorn hope. The downside is that Putin might take offense at being ignored. Since Putin generally appears to be offended all the time, though, no matter how often or how sweetly U.S. presidents talk to him, this concern, too, seems rather beside the point.
Besides, this sort of chilly calculation is preferable to the carefully staged walks in the woods, bear hugs, and holiday outings that characterized the Clinton-Yeltsin and Bush-Putin relationships. It also beats the lame reset-button metaphor that the U.S. administration used during its first few months in office. It's absolutely true that the worst problems facing the two nations were not solved this week and that everything hard—from Georgia to missile defense to Iran—has been put aside until further notice. But at least no one's pretending otherwise.