Why Putin Plays Our Presidents for Fools

I looked into his eyes once, and what I saw scared me half to death.

President Barack Obama (R) meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L) in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, during the G20 leaders Summit.   
National Journal
Ron Fournier
March 2, 2014, 2:25 p.m.

In June 2001, George W. Bush and Vladi­mir Putin ended their first face-to-face meet­ing with an out­door news con­fer­ence be­neath a craggy moun­tain­top in Slov­e­nia. “Is this a man that Amer­ic­ans can trust?” I asked Bush as Putin glared at me.

“Yes,” Bush replied, be­fore al­low­ing Putin to an­swer a sep­ar­ate ques­tion. A few minutes later, the Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent elab­or­ated: “I looked the man in the eye. 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, a man deeply com­mit­ted to his coun­try and the best in­terests of his coun­try,” Bush said, adding a few sen­tence later, “I wouldn’t have in­vited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”

While Bush spoke, Putin fixed his eyes on mine — a look so cold and dark that I wondered wheth­er those eyes were, for some un­for­tu­nate Cold War­ri­ors, the last thing they saw.

Dis­clos­ure: I don’t pre­tend to read people as well as Bush, nor am I a for­eign policy ex­pert. Just three months after the Slov­e­nia sum­mit, Putin co­oper­ated with Bush dur­ing the 9/11 at­tacks, and did so more broadly in the months that fol­lowed. Per­haps Bush saw good­ness in Putin. And per­haps I spot­ted something else, be­cause Rus­sia’s ad­vances on Geor­gia in 2008 and on Ukraine today sug­gest that Putin is an easy guy to mis­judge.

In the sum­mer of 2008, Putin and Bush were in Beijing for the Olympics when Rus­si­an troops moved in­to Geor­gia in re­sponse to what the Krem­lin called Geor­gi­an ag­gres­sion against South Os­se­tia. Peter Baker of The New York Times de­scribed the U.S. re­sponse:

Bush con­fron­ted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered Amer­ic­an ships to the re­gion and provided a mil­it­ary trans­port to re­turn home Geor­gi­an troops on duty in Ir­aq. He sent hu­man­it­ari­an aid on a mil­it­ary air­craft, as­sum­ing that Rus­sia would be loath to at­tack the cap­it­al of Tb­il­isi with Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary per­son­nel present. Mr. Bush also sus­pen­ded a pending ci­vil­ian nuc­le­ar agree­ment, and NATO sus­pen­ded mil­it­ary con­tacts.

Baker, an ex­pert on the Bush pres­id­ency and Rus­sia, re­por­ted that the White House con­sidered more ag­gress­ive ac­tion, such as bomb­ing tun­nels to block Rus­si­an troops and arm­ing Geor­gia with an­ti­air­craft mis­siles. Sec­ret­ary of State Con­doleezza Rice bristled at what she called “chest beat­ing,” Baker re­por­ted, and Bush’s team voted against mil­it­ary ac­tion. Rus­sia stopped short of Tb­il­isi, but it left troops in areas it prom­ised to evac­u­ate un­der a cease-fire.

“We did a lot, but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” said James F. Jef­frey, Bush’s deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser.

The United States was caught off guard and im­pot­ent on Geor­gia, and again with re­gard to Ukraine, be­cause of a fun­da­ment­al mis­un­der­stand­ing of the cyn­icism and prag­mat­ism that mo­tiv­ates Putin. The re­volu­tion in Kiev cre­ated con­cerns among the large Rus­si­an pop­u­la­tion in Crimea, and Putin ex­ploited it to sa­ti­ate his (and his coun­try’s) ap­pet­ite for new ter­rit­ory and power. Ju­lia Ioffe of the New Re­pub­lic ex­plains:

We didn’t think Putin would do this. Why, ex­actly? This has of­ten puzzled me about West­ern ana­lys­is of Rus­sia. It is of­ten pre­dic­ated on wholly West­ern lo­gic: surely, Rus­sia won’t in­vade [Geor­gia, Ukraine, who­ever’s next] be­cause war is costly and the Rus­si­an eco­nomy isn’t do­ing well and surely Putin doesn’t want an­oth­er hit to an already weak ruble; be­cause Rus­sia doesn’t need to con­quer Crimea if Crimea is go­ing to se­cede on its own; Rus­sia will not want to risk the geo­pol­it­ic­al isol­a­tion, and “what’s really in it for Rus­sia?” — stop. Rus­sia, or, more ac­cur­ately, Putin, sees the world ac­cord­ing to his own lo­gic, and the lo­gic goes like this: it is bet­ter to be feared than loved, it is bet­ter to be overly strong than to risk ap­pear­ing weak, and Rus­sia was, is, and will be an em­pire with an etern­al ap­pet­ite for ex­pan­sion. And it will gath­er whatever spuri­ous reas­ons it needs to in­su­late it­self ter­rit­ori­ally from what it still per­ceives to be a large and grow­ing NATO threat. Try­ing to har­ness Rus­sia with our own lo­gic just makes us miss Putin’s next steps.

Rather than walk in­side Putin’s shoes, Bush sees his soul and Pres­id­ent Obama speaks of a world in which “the tide of war is re­ced­ing.” Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry dis­misses the in­va­sion of Ukraine as “a 19th-cen­tury act in a 21st-cen­tury world.” They’re like new guys at a dan­ger­ous bar ad­mir­ing the drapes while their wal­lets walk out the door.

White House of­fi­cials in­sist that Obama is un­der no il­lu­sion about Putin. Tog­gling through every dip­lo­mat­ic op­tion, this U.S. pres­id­ent is play­ing for the same kiss-your-sis­ter out­come that Bush man­aged in 2008. Give a little, avoid a war.

The United States’ op­tions are few and fairly weak. But it doesn’t help that Obama has un­der­cut his glob­al repu­ta­tion by va­cil­lat­ing on Syr­ia and, more gen­er­ally, send­ing a con­sist­ent sig­nal that he is re­luct­ant to use mil­it­ary force to back up his threats. Obama’s ap­proach re­flects the war wear­i­ness of the pub­lic he leads and the prom­ises he made in the cam­paign to suc­ceed Bush. Non­ethe­less, rarely is a U.S. pres­id­ent re­buked as quickly and fully as when Putin stung Obama on Fri­day, ig­nor­ing a warn­ing that “there will be costs” for mil­it­ary ac­tion in Ukraine.

An hour or two after the 2001 news con­fer­ence, I wrote that Bush’s ad­visers were sur­prised by the pres­id­ent’s “un­im­peach­able en­dorse­ment” of the Rus­si­an lead­er, and “some wor­ried he may re­gret his words if Putin strays from demo­crat­ic re­forms.”

Two suc­cess­ive pres­id­ents have failed to real­ize that Putin, a former KGB of­ficer, does not think like them and does not act in ac­cord­ance with West­ern rules and cus­toms, and that a fast-chan­ging post-Cold War world is filled with op­por­tun­ist­ic lead­ers who, like Putin, re­cog­nize that a re­trenched United States cre­ates a lead­er­ship va­cu­um that they can fill, bru­tally.

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