Russia puts brave face on damning US assessments
Russia on Monday tried to play down the release of confidential US cables reportedly calling the country "a virtual mafia state" that is ruled by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and not the president.
Russian officials scrambled for a diplomatic response after the WikiLeaks whistleblower website published eight cables dealing with Russia and released further material to Western newspapers and magazines.
Some of the most damaging material concerned characterisations of Russia and its leaders that US officials would never speak publicly, but which are common currency among commentators and analysts.
They included the conclusion that all the power and decision-making authority rests with Putin and not President Dmitry Medvedev, who was described in a dispatch cited by a Moscow daily as often looking hesitant and pale.
The US embassy reportedly referred to Putin as an "alpha dog" who made all the decisions in the Russian president's place. It vividly added that Medvedev simply "plays Robin to Putin's Batman" in a reference to the comic heroes.
The two Russian leaders prefer to call themselves a "tandem" and have said that they will soon decide between themselves who will stand for the presidency when Medvedev's first term expires in 2012.
Medvedev was Putin's self-appointed successor in 2008 -- a decision that surprised some because of the new leader's more liberal foreign and domestic policy views.
But Putin has since hinted he might yet decide to run again in two years and Medvedev has made clear he would not resist ceding his place to his mentor.
Yet both the Kremlin and Putin's advisers appeared at pains not to let the frank assessments damage the recent warming of ties between former Cold War rivals.
"There is nothing new or deserving a comment in these publication," Kremlin spokeswoman Yulia Timakov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
"Our own diplomats are sometimes just as open in their own private messages to each other," another unidentified Kremlin official told the Kommersant business daily.
And Putin's own spokesman did not appear particularly angered by the leaks.
"We have to wait and see what level of diplomats made these comments, and in what documents they appear," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian media.
"And anyway, we have to find out if it is actually Putin they are talking about."
But other officials conceded off the record that Moscow's feelings were hurt by the releases and there was "awkwardness and regret" in the country's diplomatic circles.
"There is a sense of regret -- but we are not gloating," one source close to Russian diplomatic circles told reporters.
"This is not a tragedy. But I hope that these leaks contain no surprises to Russian foreign policy ... that force us to reassess our relations," the Russian official said.
Some of the most damaging cables concerned the links between Russia's security services and organised crime -- a problem that was raised by Medvedev this month.
"Independent analysis suggests that some members of the security services are allied with various organized crime structures or turn a blind eye to the activities of known criminals," said one dispatch quoted by the Russky Reporter weekly magazine.
Britain's Guardian newspaper said another cable referred to Russia as a "virtual mafia state" in which the country's intelligence agencies employed the services of mafia bosses.
And another of the officially-released cables makes a similar assessment.
It said that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had "observed that Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services.
"President Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russian PM Putin," said the cable, "but there has been little real change."
© 2010 AFP