Vladimir Putin’s strained performance at a June 25 Kremlin press conference—timed to precede his departure for a G-8 summit in Canada—has led many Russian observers to reassess the popular image of the Russian president as a “strong hand” who had whipped the oligarchs into line and restored order in the long-suffering “Land of the Firebird.”

Putin appeared relaxed and confident until he was asked a series of questions about the conspicuous public activity of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who has lately made a number of public appearances, voicing opinions that have often contradicted the Putin administration’s official line.  Most Kremlin watchers believe Yeltsin is reminding Putin to whom he owes his post—and that, as one observer put it, “there are other fish in the sea.”  The still-influential “family” or “Yeltsin clan”—the former president and the group of relatives, political operatives, gangsters, oligarchs, and media magnates who surround him—could always choose to back someone else in the 2004 presidential elections.  Thus, according to this theory, Putin—who has, from time to time, attempted to assert his independence from the family—was being warned.

At this point in the news conference, Putin stumbled.  He attempted to gloss over the apparent contradictions between the Kremlin’s official line and Yeltsin’s views, particularly on the prospective union with Belarus.  Though Putin claimed to be his own man, he added that he always listened to the opinions of the “Father of Russian Democracy” and stressed the continuity between the Yeltsin presidency and his own.  When asked to point out one issue that he has decided in direct opposition to Yeltsin’s wishes, Putin lamely mentioned the revival of the Soviet anthem’s melody: “It’s clear that if Boris Yeltsin were president we would not have restored such symbols of the state as the tune of the Soviet national anthem.”  The reaction in the Russian media was immediate: Putin had strengthened the case of critics who had long seen the ex-KGB officer as a front man for the Yeltsin team, passing up yet another opportunity to assert himself and put the “family” in its place.

Nevertheless, the biggest recent blow to Putin’s tough-guy image came in May, during the inter-clan battle for control of the management (and, thus, the “financial flows”) of the largely state-owned Slavneft oil company.  Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, long seen as the family’s creature, used every political and administrative lever at his disposal to place a family man in the Slavneft presidency, blocking out rival clans and embarrassing Putin, who has attempted to convince President Bush and potential Western investors that he has cleaned up official corruption and forced the oligarchs to play by the rules.  Putin said nothing about the scandal, which reached the point of armed confrontation at the Slavneft headquarters on the very day of his Moscow summit with Bush.  The family secured its position at Slavneft with Kasyanov’s help, despite constant claims from Putin that the time of insider deals and favoritism was over.  So much for keeping the clans “equidistant” from the Kremlin throne, not to mention away from the state budget trough.

The latest round of Russian political machinations has implications for Washington.  Yeltsin’s warnings to Putin, for example, should serve as a warning to the Bush White House as well: First, in view of the deep corruption of the Russian governing class, Bush should squelch any future Kremlin attempts to solicit financial aid from the West (remembering that Yeltsin himself said of the now-infamous disappearing 1998 IMF loan, “Lord knows where that went!”).  Second, in view of Putin’s vulnerability, the White House should not base its Russia policy on Bush’s personal relations with the Russian president.  If Putin doesn’t behave himself according to the family’s lights, he could be removed, forcing Bush to look for a new “best friend”—and, possibly, negating the largely informal and vague agreements he has made with Putin.  Bush’s predecessors hung on to their personal attachments to both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin far too long, losing opportunities to establish contacts with up-and-coming leaders and throwing good money after bad down the emerging oligarchy’s financial drain.  Bush and company should keep their collective eye on the strategic ball: Mr. Bush can cooperate with the Russian leadership on matters of strategic importance (arms reduction, resisting the expansion of militant Islam, sales of Russian oil and gas to the United States) without either liking or trusting the current occupant of the Kremlin.