A Very Special Relationship

Why do U.S. presidents go weak-kneed for their Russian counterparts?

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Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush

“I have a difficult time explaining that speech. It doesn’t accord with either the world as we see it nor with the character of our interactions with the Russians.”— Condoleezza Rice, Feb. 15, 2007

Ten days have now passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin made a speech in Munich, Germany, accusing the United States of plunging the planet into “an abyss of permanent conflicts,” of deliberately encouraging the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and (this from a country that regularly blackmails and manipulates its neighbors) of having “overstepped its national borders in every way.” During that time, the U.S. secretary of state—quoted above—has not been alone in expressing surprise. With varying degrees of shock, commentators and politicians have speculated about the significance of Putin’s “new” language, wondering whether it means Russia’s road to democracy has reached a fork; whether President Putin was really speaking to his domestic audience; or whether, even, the speech heralds some kind of policy change.

In fact, the only thing continually surprising about President Putin is the surprise itself. For we have long known a great deal about Putin, about his biography—his youth spent as a KGB officer in East Germany, his later years in the government of St. Petersburg—and about his personal philosophy, too. We have long known, for example, that he is a great admirer of Yuri Andropov, the former Soviet leader best remembered for his belief that “order and discipline,” as defined by the KGB, would revive the weakened Soviet Union of the 1980s. Way back in 1999 (as I wrote at the time), Putin went so far as to dedicate a plaque to Andropov in a corner of the Lubyanka, once the headquarters of the KGB as well as its most notorious political prison.

Since then, Putin has never ceased to emulate many of the methods of the Andropov-era KGB, including its paranoid suspicion of America. He continues to treat all Western organizations in Russia, whatever their purpose, as “spies and diversionaries.” He has used Russian television—all state-owned or state-influenced—to portray the recent mysterious deaths of his critics, including one by polonium poisoning, as part of a nefarious Western plot to discredit his government. In the wake of the September 2004 Beslan massacre, he hinted that American support for Chechen terrorists was to blame. I have heard that claim repeated in Moscow more than once.

Nevertheless, we were surprised, are surprised, and apparently always will be surprised by Putin, just as we were surprised by Boris Yeltsin before him and indeed Mikhail Gorbachev before that. From the beginning of his term in office, President George W. Bush treated President Putin the same way all American presidents treat all Russian leaders: as America’s new best friend. President Bush, infamously, looked deep into Putin’s eyes, found him to be “straightforward and trustworthy,” and invited him to his ranch.

Yet not so many years earlier, when President Yeltsin was up for re-election, President Bill Clinton told his main Soviet adviser, Strobe Talbott, “I want this guy to win so bad it hurts.” Never mind that Yeltsin was already associated inside Russia with massive theft and economic chaos or that his regime was perceived internally as corrupt and nepotistic: The American president went out of his way to visit Moscow during the campaign, just to make sure Yeltsin won.

It is, if you think about it, an odd phenomenon. After all, American presidents generally don’t campaign on behalf of their French counterparts or look deep into the eyes of German chancellors in order to divine their true nature. While at times very friendly, neither Clinton nor Bush appears to have felt a mystical connection to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet Russian politicians still seem to make American politicians grow starry-eyed and lose their bearings. Perhaps it’s a secret longing for the glamour of those Cold War summits, for the days when it appeared as if the personal relations between superpower statesmen could ward off the destruction of the entire planet. Or perhaps they put something in the vodka—sorry, mineral water—at those elegant Kremlin lunches.

Either way, it’s time to kick the habit. True, it is perfectly possible that whoever leads Russia after Putin steps down—if Putin steps down—will be a nicer, friendlier person. It is perfectly possible that we will find areas of mutual cooperation with him, just as we sometimes do now with Putin. But however friendly and cooperative, however much a “democrat” he appears to be, I hope we’ll avoid the instant professions of eternal friendship. At the very least, we’ll avoid being unpleasantly surprised, yet again, if things turn out otherwise.