"It's a complicated relationship," President Bush says of Russian President Vladimir Putin and himself (as well as the US and Russia). They seemed to get off on the good foot at their first meeting in 2001. "I looked the man in the eye," Bush said. "I was able to get a sense of his soul." He may have thought he was on the way to a relationship as chummy as Reagan and Gorbachev's. But anyone who thinks the former KGB official liked being called Pootie Poot has another thing coming.
After the recent Group of Eight summit in Rostock, Germany, William Douglas of the McClatchy News Service quoted think-tank dweller Uri Ra'Anan: "Bush has overemphasized personal chemistry in dealing with Putin. . . . He actually believes that foreign policy can be done on personality and charm. Putin views that as weakness."
All presidents personalize politics, but few to Bush's extent. In fact, after a sly maneuver Putin pulled off at the summit, "President George W Bush looked bewildered," according to MK Bhadrakumar writing on Asia Times Online, "[and] no leader likes to look bewildered at a glittering political show." Bhadrakumar's funereal pronouncement? "The chill in US-Russia relations is set to deepen."
What exactly did Putin do? It seems that, with his sixth degree black belt in judo, he executed what Bhadrakumar called a "smart diplomatic judo flip." Bush, of course, wants to install the missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. But if he and Putin were, as Bush might once have wished, as close as brothers, this counts as a serious intrusion on Vlad's side of the bedroom.
Putin had the temerity to suggest that an existing early-warning station of Russia's in Azerbaijan "could be a substitute to the United States' planned anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system in Central Europe." Moscow's "diplomatic judo flip," writes Bhadrakumar, may have put the administration in "an unforgiving mood."
Despite being shown up by Putin, Bush invited him to visit his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine shortly before July 4th. But, according to The Washington Post, Toby Gati, a former State Department official, said, "All the warm words and backslapping aren't going to change the fact that there's no 'there' there.' There's no substantive relationship."
Not only is Bush in over his head with Putin, he's as ham-handed as Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Look at how "the Motherland's drunken, bloblike train wreck of a revolutionary leader," as Matt Taibbi called him on the occasion of his death, handled the Chechnyan civil war.
Actually, it was two wars. Few have synopsized the conflicts as neatly as Max Abrahms writing in the Fall 2006 issue of MIT's International Security magazine. The main thesis of his article, "Why Terrorism Does Not Work," is that terrorists' messages are obscured by their attacks, which are inevitably interpreted as attempts to destroy a country and its people.
9/11, of course, is the case in point –- a success for bin Laden on many levels, but nada when it came to al Qaida's raison d'etre: driving the infidels out of the Middle East and eliminating Israel. When Chechen rebels bombed three Russian apartment buildings in 1999, killing a total of 229 citizens, a Russian public once disposed to be sympathetic to Chechen demands for independence now turned a deaf ear.
Providing background, Abrahms explains, "With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s several North Caucasian republics declared sovereignty. In 1991 Chechnya's first president, Dzhokar Dudayev, took the additional step of declaring independence. Federal forces invaded Chechnya in December 1994 to reestablish control in the breakaway republic."
Now check out the parallels with how Yeltsin handled that first war, which continued until 1996, with how Bush and crew wrecked Iraq. "When the war broke out, the Russian public and even the secret police perceived it as precipitate [hasty –- Ed.], believing diplomatic solutions had not been exhausted. Boris Yeltsin's position on the war did not gain popularity as it unfolded. Top military commanders openly resigned and condemned the president for not pursuing negotiations.
"From the onset of military operations until the cease-fire in August 1996, some 70 percent of Russians opposed the war. Disdain for the war manifested itself most clearly in public attitudes toward Defense Minister Pavel Grachev [read: Rumsfeld –- Ed.]. Opinion polls rated [Yeltsin's] approval at only 3 percent."
That's when Yeltsin's path deviated from Bush's and, electoral prospects imperiled, he "folded to domestic pressure, calling for an end to all troop operations in Chechnya and the immediate commencement of negotiations with [the rebels]." As clumsy as both were, Bush turned out to be way more bull-headed than Yeltsin.
In the second Chechen civil war, though, all hell broke loose. Thanks to not only the apartment bombings but the even more unimaginable atrocity of Beslan, Putin, once in power, enjoyed the almost complete support of the Russian public, unlike Yeltsin. He responded with the proverbial Iron Fist.
According to War Nerd, writing in Moscow's The eXile: "The Russian 'contractors' (meaning mercenaries) raid Chechen villages, kidnap men who might be guerrillas, torture and shoot them, and make play with their families if the mood is right." They not only killed rebel president Aslan Maskhadov, but his successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev.
In other words, Putin, known in Russian judo circles for "his wicked sweeping leg throw (Haraigoshi)," is not an opponent to be trifled with.