ANALYSIS Bush, White House now leary of Putin as Russian turns
back on democracy
By George E. Condon Jr. COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – President Bush departed the Group of Eight
summit in Russia this week a little bit embarrassed by
having casual comments picked up by a microphone. But at
home he is much more challenged by a public remark he made
and now wishes he had never uttered: his declaration five
years ago that he looked deep into the soul of Russian
President Vladimir Putin and saw a true democrat.
The two men still have a good personal relationship and
genuinely seem to like each other – traits that were on
display in St. Petersburg as the Putin hosted the annual
summit of the world's leading industrialized democracies.
But, nowadays, no one at the White House has any illusions
about the former KGB colonel being anything other than an
authoritarian with little tolerance for the workings of
Privately, Bush has
expressed regret at the rhetorical exuberance he displayed
after his first meeting with Putin at a castle in
Slovenia. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be
very straightforward and trustworthy,” he said then. “I
was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Bush's second thoughts come after five years of Putin
cracking down on the media, the legislature, the courts,
the political opposition and, more recently, civilian
groups that promote democracy.
Putin's crackdown raises questions about the future of
post-Soviet Russia and the direction of U.S.-Russian
relations when Washington is struggling to keep the
Kremlin on board in dealing with the outbreak of war in
the Middle East. (The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized
Israel yesterday for going “far beyond the boundaries of
an anti-terrorist operation” in Lebanon.)
“I'm sure President Bush would like to have those words
back,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a State Department
adviser under President Clinton and a National Security
Council official under President Reagan.
Bush also might like to have had back an expletive that
was picked up by a microphone when he discussed the Middle
East conflict Monday.
Carlos Pascual, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine,
said, “President Putin has very much systematically
dismantled many of the internal checks and balances with
political parties, the parliament, the courts, the way the
economy is managed.”
A senior administration official, who asked not to be
named, said Bush is grappling with this reality: “We want
to gain reassurances that Russia is, indeed, committed to
But there have been few such signs, thwarting Bush's
early hopes that his good relations with Putin would lead
to policy gains.
“There's a personal chemistry between them,” said Sarah
Mendelson, senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But, she added, “sometimes I think – it's been about
chemistry and not much else.”