White House

Bush, aides 'grossly misjudged Putin'

Putin and Bush in November 2001.
Putin and Bush in November 2001. George Bridges / MCT

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's failure to win Russia's consent to install U.S. missile defenses in its European backyard and a growing list of other disputes suggest that President Bush and his aides have misread the man whose "soul" Bush thought he'd divined when they first met six years ago.

Bush's strategy on Russia assumed that Russian President Vladimir Putin embraced democracy, wanted integration with the West and sought a "strategic partnership" in which Moscow would acquiesce to U.S. policies such as NATO expansion. Feuds could be resolved through the close personal relationship that Bush believed he had with his Russian counterpart.

Instead, fueled by record oil and natural gas prices and resentment of what he lambasted in February as Bush's "almost uncontained hyper use of force," Putin has led global opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, hosted Palestinians on the U.S. list of terrorist groups, sold anti-aircraft missiles and other arms to Iran and stymied Bush's drive to tighten U.N. sanctions on the Islamic republic for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment.

The Kremlin has steadily increased spending on defense modernization and revived symbolic long-range aerial reconnaissance patrols toward U.S. and European airspace.

Putin also has threatened to re-target Russian nuclear missiles at Europe if Bush deploys U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, declared his intention to trash treaties that eliminate a class of nuclear missiles and limit conventional military forces in Europe and compared the United States under Bush to Germany under Hitler.

The U.S.-Russian tensions are a far cry from June 2001, when Bush declared after his first meeting with Putin in Slovenia that he'd looked in the Russian leader's eyes, found him "trustworthy" and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

Bush and his aides "grossly misjudged Putin," considering him "a good guy and one of us," said Michael McFaul of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

The former KGB officer created that illusion partly by appearing to share Bush's political and religious convictions, standard tradecraft employed by intelligence officers to recruit spies, he said.

"Putin . . . is a brilliant case officer," said Carlos Pasqual, a former senior State Department official now at The Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington.

What many experts regard as the real Putin — a hard-line, derisive Russian nationalist — was on display Friday as he greeted visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates ahead of talks that failed to break the impasses over missile defense and other key security issues.

After keeping the U.S. officials waiting for 40 minutes, Putin mocked their mission in front of reporters and television cameras.

"Of course, we can sometime in the future decide that some anti-missile defense should be established somewhere on the moon . . . ," he said.

U.S.-Russian tensions, already at their highest since the end of Cold War, could worsen in coming months, fanning new regional instability.

If the United States unilaterally recognizes the independence of Serbia's ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo province over Russia's objections, Putin may respond by backing Serbia's annexation of northern Kosovo, igniting an ethnic Albanian backlash.

The Kremlin also could recognize the independence of separatist enclaves in the pro-Western former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia, encouraging Serb nationalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina to revive a succession drive that ended in 1995.

U.S. policy came to pivot on Putin even though Rice, the administration's top Russia expert, had lambasted former President Clinton for being overly cozy with the Russian leader's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Despite their emphasis on promoting democracy, Bush, Rice and other U.S. officials said little about massive human rights abuses in Chechnya, Putin's gradual rollback of democratic and economic reforms and his suppression of Russia's independent media.

The 2001 al Qaida attacks in New York and Washington led to unprecedented security and intelligence-sharing cooperation between the United States and Russia, which was struggling to contain a costly Muslim guerrilla war in Chechnya.

"We wanted him on our side in the global war on terror," said Pasqual.

Putin backed the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, including America's use of bases in former Soviet republics, and acquiesced in the U.S. withdrawal from a Cold War treaty prohibiting the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems.

Emerging from years of financial chaos that had hobbled its military, Russia quickly concluded a 2002 nuclear arms reduction pact mostly on Bush's terms.

Putin, however, began to sour on the relationship as Bush promoted the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact nations in NATO and supported the elections of pro-Western governments in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

U.S. officials refused to accept "that the Russians do have an interest in what they call their 'near abroad,'" said a former top State Department official who requested anonymity to speak more freely. "The Russians would have differences of opinion with us, and we would not acknowledge that we had differences of opinions."


The text of Friday's U.S.-Russian news conference in Moscow.

The English text of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Feb. 10 speech to the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy.

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