CARLA ANNE ROBBINS
New York Times
June 30, 2007
President Bush’s June 2001 declaration that he had looked Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul” was greeted with bemusement and also relief. The cowboy president wasn’t, after all, going to start another cold war. But that sudden effusiveness wasn’t as sudden as it appeared.
Preparing for that first summit, Mr. Bush met at the White House with a group of outside experts, some of whom urged him to pay attention to Mr. Putin’s already emerging autocratic tendencies. Mr. Bush had talked tough about Russia during the campaign but now had only one thing on his mind: getting Moscow to drop its objections to his missile defense plans. His goal for the meeting, he said, was to make Mr. Putin feel comfortable.
When Mr. Bush announced in December that he was pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russian leader made only pro forma complaints. Six years later, Mr. Bush is still emphasizing the personal and only episodically taking note of all that’s gone wrong in Moscow.
Mr. Putin arrives tomorrow at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport — the only foreign leader to get such an invitation from this President Bush. And missile defense will again be a neuralgic topic. Pretty much everything else has changed.
Mr. Putin has proved to be even more autocratic at home, and more bullying abroad, than those experts had warned. Acquiescence is no longer his style. In recent months, he has accused the United States of imperialism and warned that he may retarget Russia’s nuclear weapons at Europe if Mr. Bush goes ahead with plans to build parts of the still notional missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Mr. Bush’s wooing slacked off after the A.B.M. announcement and his advisers say the president is a lot more skeptical of his former soul mate. Still, on the same day that Mr. Bush criticized Russia for derailing democratic reforms, he volunteered to reporters that he still calls Mr. Putin “Vladimir” and hoped to explain to Vladimir that he shouldn’t fear a missile defense system.
It’s hard to know if these two men ever genuinely liked each other. For a while Mr. Bush certainly looked more comfortable standing beside the former KGB operative than he did standing beside Bill Clinton’s then best-friend-forever Tony Blair. When a reporter asked after their first meeting what he and Mr. Blair had in common, Mr. Bush awkwardly joked that they used the same brand of toothpaste.
Mr. Putin never waxed eloquent about Mr. Bush’s soul, but he too began to enthuse about a new U.S.-Russian partnership. He never managed to hide — or never saw the point of trying — how he was calculating the percentages, always looking for ways to leverage more power for a weakened Russia.
After the 9/11 attacks, when Mr. Putin agreed to the Pentagon’s use of former Soviet bases in Central Asia, White House officials described it as another benefit of Mr. Bush’s early cultivation. And it almost certainly was. But Mr. Putin was also quick to grandfather Russia’s brutal fight in Chechnya into Mr. Bush’s global war on terrorism, muting Washington’s criticism.
The balance of power these days has shifted — though likely not as far as the Russians believe. Moscow is flush with oil money. The U.S. has been weakened by the disastrous war in Iraq. And while Mr. Bush sees a clear domestic political benefit in showing that he still has foreign friends, Mr. Putin has decided that regularly pummeling Mr. Bush is the best way to burnish his legacy.
Still, the Kremlin fished for this weekend’s invitation, perhaps because all that truculence was beginning to play badly in Europe. (Mr. Putin also cannily suggested that instead of Central Europe, the Americans might put part of their missile defense system at an old Soviet radar base in Azerbaijan.) And one American official says Mr. Bush might do best if he used the meeting to remind Mr. Putin that if he’s not more careful, the only friends Russia may have left are Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela. The official added that Mr. Putin, “who thinks he’s on top of the world,” is unlikely to listen.
Six years later one has to wonder how things might have turned out differently if, at that first meeting, Mr. Bush had really looked into Mr. Putin’s soul and decided that helping nurture Russia’s fragile democracy was more important than building a missile defense system.