Bush and Putin aren't so friendly anymore

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 15, 2008 

US NEWS USRUSSIA 3 FT

In happier times - President Bush and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Crawford Texas, Nov. 2001.

RON T. ENNIS / FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM / MCT

WASHINGTON — There's no soul-gazing anymore between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.

A series of disputes over Iraq, Iran, energy, NATO expansion, renewed repression of dissent in Russia and now the invasion of Georgia have breached the trust that Bush famously boasted of having placed in Putin when their presidential tenures were young.

"Whatever personal word or assurance there might have been between them has been eroded," said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

Such bitter relations seemed unimaginable back in June 2001, when, outside the Brdo Castle in Slovenia, President Bush lavished praise on Putin in words that instantly entered the American pop lexicon.

"I looked the man in the eye," Bush said. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush repeatedly noted that Putin was the first world leader to call. In May 2002, Bush and Putin signed a treaty slashing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by two-thirds.

"The era in which the United States and Russia saw each other as an enemy or strategic threat has ended," Bush and Putin said in a joint statement.

Later, the two strolled through Red Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow with their wives. "It sure is wonderful to be here with my friend," Bush told surprised passers-by.

That feel-good esprit was gone this week, when Bush lambasted Russia for its invasion of Georgia, calling it "unacceptable in the 21st century."

Putin and Bush had been side by side at the Olympic Games in Beijing as the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia.

Putin ceded the presidency in May to Dmitry Medvedev, but he still appeared to be very much in charge as the prime minister. He left the Beijing games and flew to a staging ground near the Russian-Georgian border, where Russian TV broadcasts showed him with his sleeves rolled up, delivering orders to Russian generals, who saluted him as they went off to extend what supposedly had begun as a peacekeeping operation in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia into an invasion of Georgia.

Bush stayed in Beijing, watching American athletes perform as the crisis deepened.

It marked the final blow to a relationship that many have said reflected a sort of naivete that ignored Putin's background as a one-time top official of the Soviet Union's KGB spy agency and growing evidence that he was pursuing policies that were counter to American interests, in Russia and around the world.

Stephen Larrabee, a RAND Corp. analyst who served on the National Security Council staff under President Carter, said Bush wasn't the first Western leader who thought that a personal relationship with a Russian leader would overcome the vast differences in interests and approach.

"Roosevelt felt this way about Stalin, who he called 'Uncle Joe,' " Larrabee said. "Clinton had this feeling about Yeltsin. Reagan felt this way with Gorbachev. They all felt that they had a special relationship with the Soviet and Russian leaders. But when it comes to defining national interests, the personal relationship is not very important."

Larrabee said Bush's affection for Putin led him to ignore warnings about the Russian leader from his own senior aides. "He was one of the last holdouts in his administration as Russian policies began to harden," Larrabee said.

Analysts offered a variety of explanations this week for the failure of those early days to blossom into a long-term end in U.S.-Russian tensions.

Many noted that Bush administration policies, including expanding NATO to include 10 countries that either had been part of the Soviet Union — such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — or were former Soviet satellites — such as Poland — struck at the heart of Russia's perception of itself not just as a world power but also as the dominant force in its region.

American insistence at installing a missile defense system in Eastern Europe to counter, the U.S. said, possible missile threats from Iran angered Putin, who saw it as a threat to Russia. The fact that the deal includes an advanced Patriot antiaircraft defense system for Poland isn't likely to convince Moscow, either, given the slim likelihood of Iranian planes attacking Warsaw.

The American stance on Georgia, however, was a particular irritant. Not only had Georgia been a key part of the Soviet Union, but it also was the birthplace of Stalin, who, after Lenin, was the most influential leader in Soviet history.

Bush pushed, over Putin's objection, for the construction of a pipeline that carries oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. He pushed for Georgia to be accepted into NATO. He advocated the United States' spending tens of millions of dollars to train Georgia's military and rebuild the nation's infrastructure.

As an expression of gratitude, the Georgians named the boulevard from Tbilisi, the capital, to the country's main airport after Bush.

Collins, the former ambassador to Russia who's now a Russia and Eurasia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, blamed the deteriorating relations on the failure of Bush and Putin to create institutions that would allow the two countries to collaborate on common issues when the presidents weren't together.

"You can't conduct the business of two major powers just on handshakes and personal relations," Collins said.

Steven Pifer, a Brookings Institution analyst and former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, agreed. "The U.S.-Russia relationship tends to be very labor-intensive at the presidential level," Pifer said. "Without the focus from Bush and Putin from the top, it drifted and went into a downhill slide."

There also were major distractions and conflicts, Pifer noted. Bush became focused on the Iraq war and his global war on terrorism, and Putin by his efforts "to re-establish Kremlin control of the political and economic power levers" in Russia.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 probably also played a role by giving the U.S. less standing to criticize Russian actions.

"The whole question of national sovereignty and international law is more muddled than it was a decade ago, and the United States is partly to blame for the confusion," said Stephen Jones, a European studies professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Iraq could well have helped give Russia a sense that it could act with impunity in Georgia, Collins said.

"There's a sense that America is tied down in Iraq and has economic problems. There's a lot of chest-beating. 'We're back, the Americans are in trouble,' " he said. "How much of that emboldened the Russians into thinking this is the time they could make their stand in Georgia, I don't know, but it's probably part of that."

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Commentary: A sad week for Georgia, America and the world

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