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Putin: prime minister or puppet-master?

MOSCOW – So who is really in charge in Russia? Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or his boss on paper, President Dmitri Medvedev?

A foreign Russia-watcher offered the best answer I've heard.

"When we negotiate with Russia we deal with a leadership," said E. Wayne Merry, a former U.S. State and Defense Department official and a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council. ''The senior person in that leadership is Putin. The second person in that leadership is Medvedev.''

There you have it. Or do you?

VIDEO: Putin: Prime Minister or puppet-master?

'Much more complicated'

If Medvedev is the official leader while Putin acts as paramount leader, that would explain why, after summiting with Medvedev for hours on an array of important initiatives, President Barack Obama still felt the need to get Putin's blessing over a power breakfast Tuesday morning.  Otherwise, Obama risked finding out that the United States had made commitments to a front man, not the main man.

Russian insiders like Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of "Russia in Global Affairs," say it's almost silly to think that Putin is not the center of power in Russia, even if he's moved out of the Kremlin and into the "White House," a couple of miles down the Moscow River.

"Putin has the authority and enough power to, so to say, destroy any things or intentions if he believes that Medvedev is going in the wrong direction," said Lukyanov.

But does that make Putin a kind of regent or a power behind the "throne" who pulls the levers or puppet-strings, even as officially recognizing his hand-picked successor's constitutional rights?

Or is Putin just indulging Medvedev to negotiate a ceasefire in Georgia last summer (analysts say there's no doubt Putin ordered the invasion), or discuss a new strategic arms reduction treaty with the U.S. president?

Interestingly, very few – if any – Russian analysts buy into the idea that Medevdev is Putin's puppet.

"It's much more complicated than that," said Lukyanov. "I think they respect each other much more than this simple relationship would mean."

VIDEO: Obama discusses U.S. relations with Russia

Making moves

It does appear at times that Medvedev, now well into the second year of a four-year term as president, is beginning to strike out on his own.

In recent weeks he's met with liberal leaders of Russian non-governmental organizations – a group of people that Putin never had time for – and called for a loosening of restrictions placed, by Putin, on the pro-democratic organizations.

More recently, Medvedev went even further, overturning the closure of a strategic U.S. airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, reportedly originally orchestrated by Putin, which would allow the U.S. to retain a key means of transporting men and materiel into the fight in Afghanistan.  These moves are hardly the actions of a puppet.

At the same time, Putin took Medvedev's cabinet (almost all of them Putin appointees) by surprise when he decided Russia had had enough of trying unsuccessfully to gain membership into the World Trade Organization. Putin said that Russia would pull out of unilateral membership talks and would seek a joint WTO bid with Belarus and Kazakhstan. 

But on Tuesday, Medvedev reversed course during a press conference with Obama.

"We do plan to join the World Trade Organization and will do this taking into account the achievements that have been made...The format could change, there could be the need for some other agreements," Medvedev said.

So there was clearly a difference of opinion on that issue.

Still, Putin clearly moves with his political future in mind.

"Definitely the performance of Vladimir Putin as Russia's prime minister in a time of economic crisis enables him to secure the right to make a spectacular comeback in the year 2012," said Sergei Strokan, a veteran Putin-watcher and investigative reporter.

'Difficult to say' who is in charge

So, on the question of whether Medvedev is a puppet or an independent president, Strokan says the jury is out.

"Remember, this is only Medvedev's first term, and he knows he's there only because of Putin," said Strokan. "But if he runs for a second term, and many of us think he will, that's when we could see the real President Medvedev emerge.''

But even professionals like Strokan who spend much of their time dissecting the Russian tandem aren't really sure who is in control. I asked Strokan during an interview with TV cameras rolling, "So, who is in charge here?" Strokan, a man who normally speaks at rapid fire speed suddenly took a long pause and stared at me. Then he paused some more. And finally, as if conceding defeat, he shook his head and said, "It's difficult to say, difficult to say.''

Still, would a Medvedev-run Russia be any different than Putin's Russia? Certainly President Obama seems to think – or hope – that to be the case, throwing superlatives in the direction of the Russian president at every chance during their joint press conference on Monday.

Of course, even Obama slipped up by referring to Putin as "President Putin" during a press conference, as well as during an interview with NBC News Chuck Todd, before quickly correcting himself. Obama told Todd, "I don't think it's Freudian. He used to be president."

When asked by a reporter who he thought was in charge, Obama deftly skirted the issue, saying, in effect, that the constitution says Medvedev is president (a position that is supposed to handle foreign affairs), and Putin is prime minister (a position that concentrates on domestic issues). In reality, though, their roles are often reversed. Such confusion leads to slips-of-tongue, back-up power breakfasts, and the like.

Portraits say it all

Luckily, there's at least one place in Moscow where the center of power is obvious. In a far corner on the second floor of Moscow's version of Barnes & Noble, Dom Kinigi, photo portraits of current Russian leaders, the kind you would see hanging on the walls of any city hall, are there for all to see.

They are in a sense the final arbiters of power. I climbed the stairs and sure enough, there was a portrait of a Medvedev, smiling and wearing a fashionable blue tie with that cumbersome knot.

And hanging next to him is Putin, brooding, glassy-eyed and towering over Medvedev, his portrait twice as large as his protégés'.

The pictures say it all.