WikiLeaks' Russian Cables: Bad for the Reset, Good for Putin?

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Alexei Nikolsky / RIA Novosti / Reuters

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, during an interview with Larry King on Nov. 30, 2010

There is little that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hates more than to hear lectures from the West about democracy. "They want to give lessons," he snapped in early 2008, when European observers were on their way to monitor a Russian election. "They'd be better off teaching their wives to cook soup."

A year later, with the departure of U.S. President George W. Bush, Putin seemed to get his way. The Obama Administration softened the tone of such lectures to a whisper, which allowed its cherished "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations to move ahead. But this week, with the release of U.S. diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks, some vicious jabs against the Russian political system have again entered the public sphere, and once again, Putin is firing back.

On Wednesday, during an interview on CNN's Larry King Live, Putin was asked to respond to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was quoted in one of the leaked cables dated February 2010 as saying that "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government [is] an oligarchy run by the security service." After some pleasantries about Gates being "a very nice person and not a bad specialist," Putin reverted to an old defensive tactic: he brought up the U.S. Electoral College. "Where is the democracy in that?" he demanded. "And when we tell our American colleagues about their systemic problems in this area, we hear, 'Don't meddle in our affairs.' We don't meddle, but I want to advise our colleagues: You don't meddle in our affairs either."

At least in public, the Obama Administration has taken this advice. On his first visit to Moscow, in July 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama created 16 working groups to conduct regular talks with Moscow, focusing on such touchy issues as human rights and democracy. This allowed Obama to move ahead with practical initiatives, like finally getting Russia to support sanctions against Iran. It also allowed him to gain the trust of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, whose lunch with Obama at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., in June was cozy enough to put on a Hallmark card. But the WikiLeaks revelations may have cracked this veneer. As one Western embassy official in Moscow put it to TIME on Thursday, the release of the cables is "kicking our asses."

That's partly because a fresh batch of cables, which were revealed on WikiLeaks on Thursday, is again embarrassing the Russian government, the day after Putin had his say on CNN. One of the communiqués from February quotes a Spanish investigator claiming that Russia is a "mafia state" where political parties, police agencies and possibly even Putin himself work in concert with the mob. In its comment, the U.S. embassy in Moscow calls the claims "insightful and valuable," an attitude that seemed to outrage Putin's office anew on Thursday evening. "If there are real diplomats behind this text, then it becomes hurtful and sad that there are unprofessional people working in our country," a Putin spokesman told reporters, adding that the claims were "pure insinuation, utter rubbish."

But even more hurtful for the efforts of U.S. diplomats in Moscow is the fact that other cables show them insulting Medvedev, the man who has taken personal charge of improving ties with Washington at no small risk to his popularity at home. One of the dispatches says that Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman," while others describe him as "pale and hesitant," his presidential performance "lackluster." Responding to the Batman-Robin joke on CNN, Putin was not amused and suggested it was aimed at splitting up his dynamic duo with Medvedev. "Statements of this kind are, of course, aimed at insulting one of us, at snagging our self-confidence, pushing us toward certain steps that would destroy our productive cooperation in running the country," he said. "We are long used to that."

But even if he is accustomed to such slights, Putin could use Cablegate as an excuse to call off Obama's reset. "Two years ago, Putin basically told Medvedev, 'Go ahead, give it a try. See if you can improve relations with the U.S., see if you can fix Russia's image,' " says Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington. "Putin never believed it would work, and now he has a convincing argument to say, 'Look, they still don't respect us.' And of course it doesn't help that Medvedev is personally offended by all of this. Hell, I would be offended too."

In his state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday, Medvedev already seemed to be showing a much tougher face to the West, warning for the first time of a possible new "arms race" over the next decade. If the U.S. and Russia cannot agree on building a joint missile shield over Europe, he said, then Russia will need to "deploy new strike forces" closer to Europe's borders. Talking to Larry King on Thursday, Putin took it a step further. "If our offers [on missile defense] get only negative answers, and what's more, if near our borders new threats appear ... then Russia will simply be forced to ensure its security by various means, [like] creating new nuclear complexes against new threats."

Evgeny Volk, deputy director of the Yeltsin Foundation, a think tank in Moscow, says the reset has brought both sides enough benefit to help them get over the WikiLeaks scandal and maybe even avoid a new arms race in Europe. "Of course Gates hit a very painful spot for Putin, and of course it's not pleasant for Medvedev to hear such things from the U.S. embassy, which is, after all, a base for policymaking toward Russia and not just a gossip den. But in the end, I think we can rely on our leaders' pragmatism."

Yet with Russia's 2012 presidential elections looming, it may seem pragmatic for Putin to reignite a rivalry with the U.S. "Domestically, conflict with the West is a very good source of political capital, and Putin is a master at using that," Zlobin says. By forcing Putin back into attack mode on Thursday, WikiLeaks may therefore have helped reverse two years of Obama's diplomacy. In any case, the leak is going to make small talk a lot more awkward between U.S. diplomats and their Russian hosts. Just imagine: "So you remember that thing you said about our President ..."