The Odd Couple
Once, he saw into Putin's soul. Now, Bush just wants to see if they can get along
It was a grim week--with North Korea firing a batch of missiles as a warning to its adversaries, a standoff continuing with Iran over its nuclear program, and more bloody attacks in Iraq. But Russian leader Vladimir Putin couldn't resist needling President Bush last Thursday. Noting that it was Bush's 60th birthday, the Russian president passed along best wishes from the global labor leaders he had been hosting in the Kremlin that afternoon. Everyone wished the embattled American president well, Putin said, except the labor leaders from America. Both men laughed, but Bush aides saw a larger point. "They like and respect each other," said a senior adviser. "They have many strong disagreements, but they have a very good relationship."
Despite such towel-snapping moments, however, Bush has gotten more realistic about Putin since they first met in June 2001. That's when Bush famously declared that he had "looked the man in the eye ... and was able to get a sense of his soul"--concluding that Putin was "very straightforward and trustworthy" and committed to reform. Things haven't turned out quite that way, of course, and today Bush's assessment looks naive and certainly premature. U.S. policymakers admit as much. "Our views on Russia are very realistic now," says a senior administration official, who concedes that the administration's early hopes for a "strategic partnership" were unfounded. "We've stepped back," says the official.
Careful criticism. As Bush prepares to meet Putin this week at the annual conference of the Group of Eight industrialized democracies in St. Petersburg, the Russian leader's hometown, he is under pressure to condemn Putin's lurches toward autocracy. Among them: clamping down on dissent, asserting control of his country's television networks (story, Page 40), and intimidating his independent-minded neighbors by threatening to cut off energy supplies. Some critics, such as former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, urge Bush to criticize Putin's backsliding in a very dramatic way this week. Arizona Sen. John McCain has even suggested that Bush boycott the entire conference in St. Petersburg.
Bush never considered such a draconian step. But he is trying to find a way to thread the needle by expressing disapproval for Putin's excesses while at the same time winning Kremlin support for his key international objectives. "First of all," a senior U.S. official told U.S. News, "this isn't the Cold War. The world is changing. Russia is no longer a strategic adversary, nor is it a strategic threat to the United States. I think it's clear that cooperating with Russia can help us solve a number of issues that are important for American security and American economic prosperity." They include halting the spread of nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism, and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. More urgently, Bush wants to secure long-term cooperation from Putin in pressuring Iran to abandon any nuclear weapons program. Russia, however, has been reluctant to back the stringent international sanctions that Bush wants. Another disappointment for White House officials is Russia's refusal to back strong sanctions against North Korea even after Pyongyang fired several test missiles last week.