Breakfast at Putin’s

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall (but certainly not on Obama) during US President Barack Obama's tense breakfast at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s residence!

Tuesday’s working breakfast at Putin’s posh residence at Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow was certainly one of the big attention grabbers of Obama’s breathless two-day visit.

Before his plane had even left the tarmac for Moscow, the American president summoned rain clouds for his first meeting with Putin by saying the Russian prime minister had “one foot in the past.” Ouch, that’s pretty rough, especially considering that Vladimir Putin is the veteran politician between the two men with a remarkable track record.

While speculation over the motivation for the remark continues unabated, the Los Angeles Times surmised that “The White House hoped to use the Russian trip as a way to cast Obama as a tough-minded leader, not just a likable one.”

Perhaps Obama’s comment was a long-awaited settling of scores that Washington think tanks had been dreaming about ever since George W. Bush said he got a sense of then-President Putin’s soul, thus reducing all their bad-guy assessments to ashes.

“I looked the man in the eye,” Bush famously commented on meeting Putin for the first time. “I found him to be very trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Breakfast menu

Eggs with Beluga caviar and sour cream
Cranberry marmalade
Quail dumplings
Fruit drink
Tea made from water from a Samovar
Or maybe the young American president was hoping to throw the Russian prime minister off balance with a cheap shot into the political boards. If that was the case, then Obama had forgotten that Putin knows a thing or two about the martial arts.

Responding with his trademark bluntness, Putin said: “Russia cannot stand… v raskoryachku. We stand firmly on our feet and always look to the future.”

Naturally, the comment triggered a rash of western translators and philologists thumbing through their Russian dictionaries as they attempted to decipher the inner wisdom of Putin’s words.

“Everyone understands that this rarely used idiom refers to an awkward position,” Newsweek explained, in possibly the most ludicrous explanation of them all. “But not even native speakers can visualize it. For some (here it comes), it evoked nonconsensual sex (!). For others, it suggested bowleggedness.”

Russians, it must be added, who read this Newsweek article found the suggestion that the term "v raskoryachku" can be translated as "nonconsensual sex" completely absurd.

"There is no connection to sex with this word in any way, shape or form," commented Nadya, a linguist based in Tver who declined to provide her last name for probably obvious reasons.

US President Barack Obama (L) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) converse while having traditional Russian tea and snacks on a terrace at Putin's residence outside Moscow in Novo-Ogarevo (R) (AFP Photo / Alexey Druzhinin)

Personally, I can’t help imagining Putin and Obama struggling to press the all-powerful reset button, legs and arms all entangled like some sort of political version of Twister.

With or without the American president’s preemptory cheekiness, the historic first meeting between the two men (which cut deep into Obama’s scheduled commencement speech for the New Economic School) was destined to be strained anyways.

Indeed, diplomatic niceties in front of the cameras notwithstanding, there were inside reports of a testy exchange of words between the two politicians. But this was only to be expected. After all, there was much more on the plate than black caviar and quail dumplings.

At the beginning of the breakfast, Obama and Putin engaged in friendly banter before the assembled reporters. Putin, who entered the room with a swagger more appropriate for a judo match, had pleasant, albeit reserved words for Barack Obama.

“We associate your name with the hopes of developing relations between our two countries,” Putin said. “The history of Russia-US relations… has different shades. There were years of a true flourishing, but there were also rather grey days and even (days of) confrontation.”

Obama said the talks offered “an excellent opportunity to put US-Russian relations on a much stronger basis.”

Then Putin walked over to the window of the room and suggested they continue their talks outside on the veranda, where a traditional Russian breakfast awaited them.

Medvedev's Appetizer

One day before the much-anticipated breakfast, Obama and Russian President Medvedev had already taken dramatic steps forward in relations between their respective countries with a number of tentative initiatives.

Amid the dazzling splendor of the Kremlin palace, and a hoard of foreign journalists looking on, the two leaders produced a number of planned agreements, including a draft text to renew the START-I disarmament treaty, which will expire on December 5.

The tentative declaration represents a one-third reduction in the total number of Russian and US nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675, and the number of ballistic missile carriers to between 500 and 1,100. Obama and Medvedev also introduced legislation that will permit US military aircraft to use Russian airspace to deliver troops, weapons and spare parts to Afghanistan, where NATO is engaged in an ongoing battle with Taliban forces, dispersed along the rugged mountain border with Pakistan.

But the tempting military package hinges on a cold leftover from the paranoid Bush years: the proposed missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Washington insists that its gradually sprawling missile program poses no threat to Russia as it is designed, they argue, to protect Europe from a hypothetical rogue missile attack. Iran is usually fingered as the bogeyman in such an apocalyptic unfolding, although the reason for Tehran to launch a surprise attack on Europe has never been fully articulated. Indeed, it is usually Israel that is threatened with "elimination," although Iranian officials say such harsh wording is "just a figure of speech."

Russia, however, says the system poses a direct threat to the security of the country. Last month, Medvedev warned that Russia might consider placing nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania.

The Russian side, much to the annoyance of the Americans, demands a linkage between the new terms of the START-I treaty and missile defense in Europe. In other words, there can not be a dramatic reduction in nuclear weapons as long as the US insists on building missile defense in Eastern Europe.

“The development of uncontrollable and unverifiable missile defense will make impossible reductions in strategic offensive weapons,” commented Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Ekho Moskvy radio. “What is more, it will trigger a new arms race. That is the eternal contradiction between the sword and the shield.”

Obama’s very “frank” discussions with Medvedev on this stubborn issue were continued during his breakfast with Putin.

But the best the American president could offer his host was to produce a full assessment of the system, which some scientists insist is an engineering risk not worth taking, to be finished by summer.

In the meantime, Russia and the US will continue to move forward awkwardly, but hopefully not so “v raskoryachku” that the reset button remains beyond their reach.

Robert Bridge, RT

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