U.S. State Department cables from Russia, recently released by WikiLeaks, portray the country as crippled by rampant corruption at all levels. The cables also portray Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a deeply unflattering light, suggesting he has failed to rout the corruption that makes even him, perceived in the U.S. as a strongman with near-total control, ineffectual and at times outright ignored by his own government. The cables also track the failed U.S. efforts to deter the George-Russia war that broke out in 2008. Here's what the cables say and how it's being interpreted.

  • Putin, Russian Gov't Helpless Against Corruption  The New York Times' C.J. Chivers writes, "Beneath the public efforts at warmer ties, the United States harbors a dim view of the post-Soviet Kremlin and its leadership, and little hope that Russia will become more democratic or reliable. The cables portray Mr. Putin as enjoying supremacy over all other Russian public figures, yet undermined by the very nature of the post-Soviet country he helped build. Even a man with his formidable will and intellect is shown beholden to intractable larger forces, including an inefficient economy and an unmanageable bureaucracy that often ignores his edicts."
  • Russia Is a 'Mafia State'  The Guardian's Luke Harding writes, "Russia is a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centred on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a 'virtual mafia state', according to leaked secret diplomatic cables that provide a damning American assessment of its erstwhile rival superpower. Arms trafficking, money laundering, personal enrichment, protection for gangsters, extortion and kickbacks, suitcases full of money and secret offshore bank accounts in Cyprus: the cables paint a bleak picture of a political system in which bribery alone totals an estimated $300bn a year, and in which it is often hard to distinguish between the activities of the government and organised crime."
  • How We Failed to Deter Russia-Georgia War  Der Spiegel's Uwe Klussman writes, "The leaked embassy cables show how the US, after spending years helping to build up Georgia's military capabilities, made last-ditch diplomatic attempts to avert the August 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia. ... Nevertheless, US President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, continued to give their unqualified support to Georgia. This political course emboldened Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili; he believed that the US would step in if things got serious. Bolstered by US aid, he was pursuing a massive military build-up. He was also using threats and promises in an attempt to bring to heel the separatist republics. But his efforts had proven fruitless."
  • On Larry King, Putin Pushes Back  The Boston Globe's Ellen Barry writes, "His comments, made in an interview broadcast on CNN’s 'Larry King Live,' referred to a cable that said 'Russian democracy has disappeared' and described the government as 'an oligarchy run by the security services,' a statement attributed to the American defense secretary, Robert M. Gates. ... Putin said that Gates was 'deeply misled.' ... Putin also warned that Russia will develop and deploy new nuclear weapons if the United States does not accept its proposals on integrating Russian and European missile defense forces."
  • Putin and Medvedev: 'Batman and Robin'  Foreign Policy's Max Strasser writes, "While Putin (Batman) may have come off looking pretty good, Medvedev might not be so thrilled with being called Robin. Another leaked cable describes Putin as an 'alpha dog.' ... Meanwhile, the Russian president is apparently portrayed as 'pale' and 'hesitant.'"