US-Russia Relations Cold War Tension, Reloaded

By in Washington

Part 2: "He Totally Misjudged Putin"

But personal relationships, including those between leaders of state, are very important to Bush, and he feels Putin has deceived him. "He totally misjudged Putin," says Michael McFaul from the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. "He thought he was one of the good guys." Like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's description of Putin as an "exemplary democrat," Bush's act of flattery after his first meeting with Putin in 2001 -- when he said he had looked Russian leader in the eye and glimpsed his soul -- appears to have been wishful thinking.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Moscow.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Moscow.

The Americans also feel streamrollered by the new debate over Putin's ongoing political career. "The White House expected Putin to play some sort of role after his departure, perhaps as the head of Gazprom," says Gottemoeller. "But they didn't think it would be a key political role." Current rumors that Putin will run for prime minister have dashed the hopes of top Washington officials for a new start in US-Russia relations.

In the interest of maintaining a strategic dialogue with Moscow, Americans have also tended to move cautiously in criticizing Russian human-rights violations in Chechnya. But if they're also forced to accept Putin's less-than-democratic plans to stay in power, they could lose credibility as champions of democracy -- an image which has already been tarnished in the wider world by the Iraq fiasco and torture scandals.

"It's hard to reprogram the basic Russian DNA"

During her recent visit to Moscow, Condoleezza Rice insisted that the White House had by no means lost moral authority in its relations with Russia. But many intellectuals disagree, including Masha Lipman, the former head of a well known Russian news magazine and a columnist for theWashington Post: "It is not clear whether he truly believes that Western democracy is nothing but disguise and manipulation, but Putin never misses an opportunity to say it is, and the Russian people increasingly share this view."

Moderate elements on both sides have tried to defuse the hawkish rhetoric, including Richard Lugar, an influential Republican senator. During an appearance at the Brookings Institute just before Rice's Moscow visit, he made noises reminiscent of a marriage counsellor: "We both have to realize that we urgently need each other," he told the audience, "and we have to put as much energy into finding common approaches as has recently gone into venting our frustrations."

But the challenges are daunting. "The Kremlin's pursuit of a new arch-enemy has altered Russian-American relations," says McFaul. "Potential areas of cooperation, such as common investments in oil production, in military bases to fight the Taliban and in missile defense systems have been transformed into a cutthroat competition where there are only winners and losers."

Putin has already made clear that if the the US fails to respect Russian security interests, Russia will withdraw from agreements made at the end of the Cold War, including major disarmament treaties. And his assertive stance during his trip to Iran reminded the Americans first and foremost of the basic tenets of the "Putin doctrine," which can be summed up as follows: Accept us as equals, treat us as peers.

Bush once imagined that he had looked into Putin's soul, but now he appears to have accepted the Russians as they are, despite all the heavy rhetoric about world wars. At the White House press conference this week he sounded resigned. "Reprogramming the kind of basic Russian DNA," he said, "which is a centralized authority -- that's hard to do."


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