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Bush And Putin Fail To Agree To Disagree

US President George W. Bush with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Mark N. Katz
Washington (UPI) Apr 25, 2006
The G-8 summit will take place in St. Petersburg, Russia this coming July, with President Bush and President Putin meeting at a time when Russian-American relations have come under increasing strain.

Washington and Moscow disagree sharply on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. Washington has recently accused Moscow of providing Saddam Hussein with information on U.S. troop movements during the 2003 American-led intervention. Moscow sees American support for democratization in the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union as threatening Russian influence there. The list goes on and on.

In light of this, President Bush's highly positive remarks about President Putin when they first met in June 2001 seem even more na´ve now than they did at the time. At his joint news conference with Putin back then, Bush stated, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy... I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country... I wouldn't have invited him to my ranch if I didn't trust him."

Were these remarks Bush made really na´ve? In light of all the subsequent disagreements between Moscow and Washington, it undoubtedly seems so to many. It must be said, though, that Putin has also done a number of things since then that have helped Washington -- things which he did not have to do.

These include: approval of the establishment of American military bases in Central Asia after 9/11 (despite the opposition of his own defense minister); acquiescence to American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; acquiescence (albeit grudging) to the democratic revolutions that took place in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004); reversal of the cutback in natural gas supplies to Ukraine when the West complained about this at the beginning of 2006; and voting with the U.S. in the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council in February 2006.

It would, of course, be ridiculous to state that Putin took all these actions which Washington approved of just because Bush made such flattering remarks about him back in 2001 -- especially considering that there has been some Russian backsliding on some of these issues (particularly its push to remove U.S. bases from Central Asia). What has long struck me as odd, however, is that those criticizing Bush's June 2001 remarks about Putin have assumed that Bush actually meant them. It now appears, by contrast, that Bush made these remarks for a purpose: to disarm Putin by indicating that he trusted him, thus giving the Russian leader an incentive not to lose that trust.

Whatever else Bush might be criticized for, I believe that in June 2001 he grasped an essential truth: Putin desperately wants to be accepted as an equal by Bush and other Western leaders. While there were important differences between Washington and Moscow back then as well, Bush intuitively understood that treating Putin as a friend would yield some positive results. Treating him as a pariah, on the other hand, would probably result in uniformly bad behavior on Putin's part.

Of course, it is not clear to what extent Bush's personal diplomacy of June 2001 contributed to Putin's cooperative behavior in some areas afterward. To the extent that it did, however, its effect has clearly diminished as Russian-American tensions have increased. There may simply be a limit to how successful this type of personal diplomacy can be in overcoming clashing perceptions of national interests.

Yet despite the deterioration in Russia's relations with America and other Western democracies, Putin still seeks recognition from them as an equal. But does he seek it enough to alter Russian policies that concern America and the West? Some additional personal diplomacy on Bush's part at the upcoming G-8 summit may make it easier for Putin to do so. There is no guarantee that this will work. But it would be worth it to try.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. Alana Romanella, a GMU political science graduate student, provided research assistance for this article.

Source: United Press International

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