Dmitry Medvedev sits in the driver's seat of a new car, examines the inside, the instrument panel, and the pedals. He looks around, but the steering wheel is missing. He turns to Vladimir Putin and asks: Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the steering wheel? Putin pulls a remote control out of his pocket and says, I'll be the one doing the driving.

The comic story has been doing rounds in Moscow, a US diplomat told Washington earlier in February this year. US diplomatic cables leaked by whistle-blower site Wikileaks suggest that even as Russians are eagerly awaiting the dates of elections in 2012, the outcome is almost decided. American officials believe that Vladimir Putin, the current Prime minister would continue to influence the course of the country's politics no matter what role he plays in it.

We should continue to engage where possible with Putin, who will continue to have a significant say in Russian affairs for the foreseeable future, regardless of his formal position, the US diplomat wrote.

John Beyrle, the US ambassador in Moscow, dubbed Putin as having the final say in Russian politics. In a cable sent to the United States, the diplomat maintained that no matter who becomes president in 2012, experts increasingly believe that the road to the presidency still runs through Prime Minister Putin.

Medvedev's personal relationship with Putin, lack of a party foundation, and a small pro-Medvedev bureaucratic cadre limit his ability to be reelected without Putin's consent, he said.

In the diplomatic note, Beyrle quoted General Director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, Dmitriy Orlov, as saying, 'Putin would undoubtedly return as president because he wanted to remain in control of Russia from the more prestigious seat in the Kremlin. He had stepped aside in 2008 merely to avoid unsavory comparisons to authoritarian leaders in Russia's backyard.'

The ambassador informed the U.S. administration that should things remain stable, Putin will remain in a position to choose himself, Medvedev, or any other person as Russia's next president.

Another cable in November last year stated that President Medvedev is an instrument of Putin's power rather than an independent player.

The cable quoted an anonymous Kremlin source dismissing Medvedev as a real contender in the upcoming polls and indeed claiming that the president was the number '3' guy in Russian politics, behind Putin and Deputy Premier Igor Sechin.

In his formulation, Putin remains the main arbiter of elite conflict and continues to balance the two, unequal factions against each other. For opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, whose SPS party was bought out by the Kremlin, Medvedev remains the Lilliputian to Putin's commander-in-chief, the diplomat reported back to the US.

Even as a small group of bureaucrats is reportedly backing Medvedev for the coming term, Observers in Moscow are confident that Putin is strong enough to handle any kind of opposition within his party. After all, he served at the Fifth Directorate of the KGB, which used to combat political dissent in the days of Soviet Union.