MOSCOW Russia's Vladimir Putin emerges from the biggest ever leak of U.S. diplomatic documents as the "alpha-dog" ruler of a deeply corrupt state dominated by its security forces.
The 58-year-old prime minister is presented by U.S. diplomats as Russia's most powerful politician, holding the keys to everything from energy deals to Moscow's Iran policy.
By contrast, President Dmitry Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman," is pale and hesitant and has to get his decisions approved by Putin, according to the cables.
But correspondence from the elite of the U.S. diplomatic corps also casts Putin as a leader plagued by an unmanageable bureaucracy and grappling with ruling a "virtual mafia state" dominated by corrupt businessmen and the security forces.
A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Paris said U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates observed on February 8, 2010, that "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government is an oligarchy run by the security services."
Gates told his French counterpart that "President Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than PM Putin, but there has been little real change," according to the document.
Putin is the dominant member of what Russian officials call a ruling tandem with Medvedev, who Putin tapped as his successor when a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms kept him out of the 2008 presidential race.
But the publication of such frank statements by U.S. diplomats about Russian leaders ahead of the 2012 presidential election are embarrassing for President Barack Obama, who has worked closely with Medvedev to improve U.S.-Russian ties.
Russia "regrets" the release by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks Sunday of a trove of cables between Washington and U.S. embassies around the world, a diplomatic source said on Monday.
"Digging into diplomatic underwear is not a nice business," the source said on condition of anonymity. "We hope there is nothing (in the documents) which could really surprise us."
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested Moscow does not want the revelations to damage ties with Washington.
"It's entertaining reading, of course," Lavrov said in India, according to Itar-Tass. "But in practice we prefer to be guided by the concrete matters of partners. We will continue to adhere to precisely that approach in the future."
Medvedev's spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said "the Kremlin has found nothing interesting or worth comment" in the cables, and, referring to the Batman and Robin allusion, she said that "fictional Hollywood heroes hardly deserve official comment."
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.
"YOU CAN'T BOIL TWO HEADS"
The documents give a rare glimpse of an arcane world where U.S. diplomats pore over news reports and garner titbits of information on everything from shady businessmen breaking U.N. sanctions on Iran to Kremlin politics.
According to a cable from February 25, 2010, one of Washington's top diplomats, Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns, was told by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev that Medvedev is surrounded by people he does not control.
"Many high-ranking officials don't recognise (Medvedev) as a leader," Aliyev was quoted as saying in a cable published by Britain's Guardian newspaper. Aliyev said he had seen Medvedev taking decisions that needed further approval and that some were stymied by others, presumably in the prime ministerial office.
"He said that there are signs of a strong confrontation between the teams of the two men, although not yet between Putin and Medvedev personally," the cable added.
"We have a saying in Azeri, 'Two heads cannot be boiled in one pot'" (street slang suggesting that two leaders are spoiling for a fight)," Aliyev was quoted as saying.
In other cables quoted by the New York Times, diplomats express concern over the relationship between Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who they said "appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin" in Europe.
One particularly tart cable from Moscow relates a wedding party in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan where Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov dances clumsily with a gold-plated automatic gun stuck down his jeans.
Kadyrov gave the happy couple five kilograms of gold before roaring off into the night with his bodyguard. "Ramzan never spends the night anywhere," the U.S. diplomat is told.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman, Alexei Anishchuk and Denis Dyomkin; Editing by Louise Ireland and Mark Heinrich)