War Stories

When Vladimir Meets George

What’s on the agenda for this weekend’s informal summit?

Bush and Putin. Click image to expand.
George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin

If one principle guided American diplomacy through the last half of the 20th century, it was to keep in mind, at all times, the fears and interests of Russia—not to appease them, but to exploit, manipulate, and, yes, sometimes accommodate them—in the pursuit of advancing our own interests.

Tensions with Russia have been flaring—and the world is more chaotic than it otherwise would be—in large part because President George W. Bush and his top advisers lost sight of this principle.

Presumably, he’ll try to bring it back in focus this Sunday and Monday at a summit with Vladimir Putin. They’re meeting not at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, but at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Will Dad sit in? (It wouldn’t hurt.) Will old pal Brent Scowcroft just happen to drop by? (Less likely, but that would be interesting.)

At the start of his presidency, Bush the younger understood the need to line up pins with the Russians (if only for appearance’s sake) before taking actions that affected their security. He wanted to embark right away on a missile-defense program, which meant abrogating the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty, the 30-year-old centerpiece of U.S.-Russian arms control. But he knew he first had to assure President Putin that the move wasn’t directed at Russia. So he flew to Europe and famously looked into Putin’s soul. Meanwhile, Colin Powell, his secretary of state, negotiated the Moscow Treaty, which cut each side’s arsenal of offensive nuclear arms and created a broad framework for bilateral cooperation. By the end of the year, when Bush finally did withdraw from the ABM Treaty, Putin barely shrugged.

Soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, U.S. and Russian officials exchanged intelligence on counterterrorism; Putin let the CIA use air bases in Uzbekistan as a staging point for the invasion of Afghanistan; he engaged in a “strategic energy dialogue” with U.S. oil companies.

How, then, did it happen that this spring, when Bush announced a plan to place a mere 10 anti-missile missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, he set off a flurry reminiscent of the Cold War’s darkest days? Russian officials decried the move as “destabilizing”; charges and countercharges flew like flame-darts; Putin not only likened America to Nazi Germany but threatened to re-aim his nuclear missiles at Europe.

As far back as March 2006, well before the flap over missile defenses, a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations concluded, in an 82-page report, that the “very idea of ‘strategic partnership’ “—the watchword of U.S.-Russian relations a mere four years earlier—”no longer seems realistic.”

Since then, Putin has curtailed U.S. access to the Uzbeki air bases, revoked Exxon/Mobil’s license to explore Sakhalin’s oil fields, and talked of revoking the Reagan-era treaty limiting the presence of troops in Europe.

To some degree, a deterioration in relations was inevitable. Putin gave in to Bush back in 2001 in part because he had no choice. Russia’s economy was in shambles, its leverage nearly nonexistent. Now, soaring oil and gas prices have revitalized its economy; Putin’s instinctive (and domestically popular) nationalism has risen to the fore; the days of bowing to the West, for its own sake, are over.

In part, this is a backlash to Boris Yeltsin’s reform years, which Westerners regard as a golden age but most Russians recall as an era of poverty, disorder, and humiliation. Russian history is rife with “times of troubles” followed by a strong ruler who restores national power. Putin sees himself, and is widely seen, as such a ruler.

Steven Sestanovich, the author of the Council on Foreign Relations’ report (and the ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration), thinks a major turning point in this backlash occurred during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In the winter of 2004-05, pro-Russia authorities were caught rigging the ballots in Ukraine’s national election; massive street rallies in Kiev sparked a revote, which the rightful, independent candidate won.

However, many Russians view the whole episode as a nefarious American plot. “Well-placed, well-educated Russians have told me the nuttiest things about the Ukrainian election,” Sestanovich says, “all of them having to do with a conspiracy by George Soros and the CIA to destabilize Russia.”

Bush had just begun his second term as president and was declaring, over and over, that the spreading of democracy would be the central theme of his new foreign policy. Many Russians saw this, too, as part of an anti-Russia plan.

“It’s hard to tell how much of this Putin believes and how much he’s using it for political purposes,” Sestanovich says. “But Russians started to see their neighbors’ domestic policies as a potential threat to national security. The Ukrainian election hardened this worldview and really marked a parting of the ways. At that point, we were on the road to a confrontation.”

An astute student of Russian history and politics—someone with the credentials of, say, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—should have anticipated this reaction and tried to mollify it. Russia, after all, has hardly regained the footing of an imperial power. Its military is still weak, its economy is a gas-and-oil monoculture. An administration that hadn’t lost sight of how to deal with Russia could have found many opportunities—offered many lures—to keep Moscow pacified; if not revolving in our orbit, at least not colliding with it.

But Bush didn’t offer Putin a deal, engage him in discussions, or seem even to recognize that a serious chat was in order. When Putin threw his fit about missile defenses in Europe, a “senior administration official” told the New York Times, “We were a little late to the game. We should have been out there … making the case more forcefully before people began framing the debate for us.”

It was a jaw-dropping admission of diplomatic failure, along the lines of a homeowner forgetting to pay the monthly mortgage. Putin’s protests were without substantive merit. A few anti-missile interceptors, assuming they worked (a dubious assumption), would be no counter to the Russians’ vast missile arsenal. But Bush’s failure to play “the game” gave Putin all the ammo he needed—to justify tight controls on the home front, revive paranoia about “USA imperialism,” and sow divisions and fears about “a new Cold War” among America’s European allies.

Philip Zelikow, a longtime friend of Rice’s and her former counselor in the State Department, blames much of the current tension on Putin. But he adds, “That said, the U.S. hasn’t had the time to have a Russia policy over the last two years.”

Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff in Bush’s first term, agrees. Even in Powell’s day, he says, “Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea sucked all the energy out of the administration—including at State—and left little time or room for thinking about Russia.” When Putin said or did something that couldn’t be ignored, “U.S. policy,” he adds, “was reaction, not planned. I don’t think that, initially, anyone—including Condi—realized just how rapidly petrodollars and Putin’s consolidation of power had put Russia back in a position of influence in the international community.”

Distractions, though, are no excuse. One lesson learned by the previous post-Cold War presidents—Bill Clinton and Bush’s father—was that, in farflung crises, a more influential Russia can be a more useful Russia.

In the 1998 Balkans war, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic finally surrendered after 79 days of NATO airstrikes not because the bombing had exhausted him (there’s no evidence of that) or because he feared a ground invasion (no such assault was in the works), but rather because the Russians—his main ally—withdrew their support and joined the Atlantic Alliance’s common front.

This didn’t happen by chance. Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s Russia specialist, took strenuous measures to persuade Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin not only to abandon Milosevic but to sit across the table from him—in clear assent to the West’s position—while Talbott demanded that all Serbian forces leave Kosovo. Clinton also had long phone conversations with Yeltsin, with whom he’d cultivated a personal relationship.

Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar at Stanford (who chronicled this episode in his book Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War), says, “Flying to Moscow over and over, treating them as pivotal world actors, consulting with them privately—that’s how things get done with the Russians. And that’s what the Bush administration hasn’t been doing.”

The Russians won’t always be on our side. And sometimes we’ll have to confront them. But a key task of diplomacy is to persuade, cajole, or coerce them into seeing that taking our side is in their interest—or, if it’s not, to offer them inducements to make it so.

Moscow could play a key role in getting Iran to stop its nuclear-weapons program. The Russians supplied Tehran with nuclear technology; they also stand to gain much from oil and gas contracts. They are well-positioned to coax Iran away from the bomb, but doing so might work against their own commercial interests, which these days seem paramount. Getting the Russians to make the sacrifice might require dangling an alternative enticement—material, diplomatic, or whatever—that appeals still more to their interests. The road to Tehran may run through Moscow—but first the American president has to see the route and pave the road.

One bit of good news is that Putin may have overplayed his hand. The best way to mend the frazzled ties between America and Europe is to scare the latter into believing the Russian bear might be back on the prowl, and Putin’s rhetoric has gone some distance toward raising the specter. Putin stepped back a bit from the growling. Bush, too, has lately stirred from his slumber. Hence the summit this weekend in Maine.

Soothing talk, though, has its limits. Recognizing each other’s interests, sorting out where they conflict and converge, facing up to the former, making the most of the latter—this is the necessary task. The epoch of the superpowers is over, but our problems are easier to solve when Russia and America work together.