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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Visit Muddies The Policy Picture

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's trip to Paris on Thursday for a two-day visit will be watched closely for the answers that it might provide to a vexing question: Just who is the country's most important figure when it comes to foreign policy?

As is the case on the domestic front, there has been no clear indication yet of who will set the tone in the country's foreign relations after Putin was replaced in the Kremlin by his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Analysts said they remained puzzled as to how power is being shared by the Kremlin and the White House.

During the working visit to France, his first trip outside the CIS as prime minister, Putin will hold talks with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, but he also plans to meet with his former counterpart, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The two will have a "working dinner" at the Elysee Palace on Thursday evening, French Embassy spokesman Sylvain Guiaugue said Wednesday. 

It is a rare honor for a foreign head of government to have dinner with France's head of state. "It is unusual, but it happens," Guiaugue said.

Analysts said the trip demonstrated Putin's extraordinary authority as prime minister.

"There is no question that he is much more powerful than that of any other prime minister in Russian postcommunist history," said Masha Lipman, editor of the Pro et Contra journal, published by the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Lipman added that Putin had not only formulated, but also implemented the country's foreign policy during his two presidential terms.

The White House dismissed all speculation about leadership questions as nonsense.

"Russia's foreign policy is determined by the president, as stipulated by the Constitution," said Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. "There can be absolutely no question about this."

Peskov also confirmed that Putin planned to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in August at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

He also said that, as prime minister, Putin remained an important international actor.

"The executive's range of power in international contacts is also very high," he said.

Both French and Russian officials explained that Putin's visit was the result of an invitation made by Sarkozy.

"During his visit to Moscow last October, President Sarkozy invited Mr. Putin to come to Paris after his presidential term ends," Guiaugue said.

He added that the invitation had been issued regardless of Putin's future role.

"It was totally unknown then what post he would hold after stepping down," Guiaugue said.

Putin is being accompanied on the trip by a group of government officials and business leaders, including Industry and Trade Minister Viktor Khristenko, White House chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin, Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko, Vneshekonombank chairman Vladimir Dmitriyev and AvtoVAZ president Boris Alyoshin.

Putin's wife, Lyudmila, will not be making the trip.

"This is a working visit," Peskov said.

The talks with Fillon on Thursday afternoon will focus on economic cooperation in the spheres of energy, aerospace, transportation and infrastructure, embassy spokesman Guiaugue said.

The country's trade with France grew from $5.8 billion in 2006 to $16.3 billion last year.

France is one of the world's biggest producers of atomic-energy equipment. It is also home to some core units of EADS, the European aerospace group, in which Russia's state-owned Development Bank owns a 5 percent stake.

Another aspect of the trip will be preparation for negotiations over a new cooperation agreement with the European Union, set to begin at the EU-Russia summit in Khanty-Mansiisk in June.

France will assume the EU's rotating presidency in July, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner set out his country's priorities for relations with Russia during a visit to Moscow last week.

"The talks should be interpreted as preparation for the French presidency," said Thomas Gomart, an analyst at the French Institute of International Affairs, adding that energy was likely to dominate the French agenda.

"Russia may not be at the top of the government's interests, but energy is," Gomart said by telephone from Paris.

He said it was good that the Paris talks were still on after the leadership change in Moscow, but the Carnegie Center's Lipman warned that the leadership question was still an issue.

"A year ago, we thought it would be clear as soon as Putin named his successor," Lipman said. "But as it turns out, we do not have any better answer today."

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center of Political Technologies, said Putin and Medvedev would share powers in both domestic and foreign affairs.

"They will divide influence in both spheres," he said, adding that the country's foreign policy will continue to be focused on both the East and West.

"Putin goes to France, Medvedev to China, Germany and then the G8 [summit in Japan]. Then someone will go to India and the United States," he said.

Medvedev's choice of Kazakhstan and China for his first foreign trip as head of state last week was broadly interpreted as a signal he would follow an Asia-first strategy.

The French have also invited Medvedev to visit Paris.

"Sarkozy invited President Medvedev when he called him to congratulate him on his election, and Foreign Minister Kouchner repeated this invitation during his visit last week," Guiaugue said.

But Medvedev promised German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during an earlier meeting in the Kremlin that he would visit Germany on his first trip to the West, in early June.

At the time, reporters traveling with Steinmeier said he had asked for a meeting with Putin but was rebuffed with the explanation that the prime minister was not responsible for foreign policy.

Spokespeople for both sides dismissed the reports at the time.

n Sarkozy said Wednesday that he would propose a European Union partnership with Ukraine that would lead to Kiev's eventual membership.

"As head of the European Council, I will want to propose a partnership for Ukraine so that it could finally join [the EU]," Sarkozy told a joint news conference with Polish President Lech Kaczynski in Warsaw, Reuters reported.

It was the first time France, traditionally lukewarm on EU enlargement, has raised the possibility of Ukrainian membership. Sarkozy did not elaborate, and it was not clear when he envisioned Ukraine qualifying for EU accession.