President Obama today held a formal press conference during which he announced new steps to increase oversight of national security surveillance programs and answered questions about his decision to cancel a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin; the surveillance issue; the next Federal Reserve chair; terrorism and U.S. embassy closures; implementation of health care reforms; immigration reform; and other matters.
Cancellation of the Putin meeting, which would have occurred at the upcoming G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, has been of particular interest this week, not only for its proximate cause—Russia’s decision to grant NSA secret-leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum—but also for what the move indicates about the state of U.S.-Russia relations, lack of progress on key issues between the two nations, and the personal relationship between the two leaders.
When President Obama took office in 2009, his administration declared its intention to “press the reset button” in U.S.-Russian relations. At the time, Dmitri Medvedev was president and Putin prime minister, but it has always been Putin, the former KGB man from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), performing as the top power in Russia in the years following Boris Yeltsin.
His dominance of Russia’s political system raises the question, just who is Vladimir Putin? During the press conference, when asked about his relationship with Putin, President Obama quipped that “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”
Two Brookings experts, Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy, explored this question in their book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Brookings, 2013). Hill and Gaddy break down Putin, whom they call “a man from nowhere,” into six discrete identities to understand his multidimensional nature.