Monday, July 23, 2018

Hindsight Shows Quite Clearly Why It's Easier To Trust And Respect Putin

medium |  We were scheduled to have sixty minutes with Putin. After pleasantries were exchanged, Obama opened the conversation by expressing his optimism for U.S.-Russia relations. Putin interrupted him early to express a different view.

For the next hour, Putin walked through the complete history of U.S.-Russian relations during his time as president. He punctuated his narrative with several instances of disrespect from the Bush administration. He liked President George W. Bush as a person, he told Obama, but loathed his administration. As Putin explained, he had reached out to Bush after September 11, believing that the United States and Russia should unite to fight terrorists as a common enemy. He had helped persuade leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to allow the U.S. to open air bases in their countries to help fight the war in Afghanistan. But in return, so he claimed, the Bush administration had snubbed him. 

Putin even suggested that Russia and the United States could have cooperated on Iraq had the Bush administration treated Russia as an equal partner. But it did not, and that’s why U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated so dramatically while Bush was president. The Bush team had supported color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine — a blatant threat to Russia’s national interests. In Putin’s view, Russia had done nothing wrong; America was to be blamed for the poor relations between the two countries.

Putin knew how to tell a dramatic story. For each vignette of disrespect or confrontation, he told the president the date, the place, and who was at the meeting. During one story, he pointed to a chair he recalled Condoleezza Rice sitting in at the time, right next to Sergei Ivanov, then Putin’s defense minister. He must have rehearsed all these details beforehand. For one story about counterterrorism cooperation, Putin told Obama how the Russians had benefited from some information shared with them by American officials. Dramatically, he waved away the waiters serving us tea, leaned in, and told Obama that they had used this information to “liquidate” the terrorists.

As I remember it, Putin spoke uninterrupted for nearly the entire time scheduled for the meeting, documenting the injustices of the Bush administration. This was a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Obama listened patiently, maybe too patiently. I was amazed. There was no way I could have sat for a full hour without saying something. I was also nervous. The meeting was scheduled for sixty minutes, and by minute fifty-five the U.S. president had not said a thing. It was my assignment to read out this meeting to our press corps later that day. I couldn’t tell them that Obama had merely listened the entire time!

My worries were misplaced. In the end the meeting went well beyond three hours, and Obama had plenty to say. His main message was again about Reset. He asked Putin to have an open mind about resuming engagement with the United States on issues of common interest. He explained to Putin that he was different, representing a break with many of the policies of the Bush administration. Obama avoided flowery language about friendships and strategic partnerships. Instead, he pledged to always be straight with Putin and to respect Russia.

The two most contentious subjects that morning were missile defense and Iran. Putin explained to Obama why planned American missile deployments in Europe threatened “strategic stability” — otherwise known as mutual assured destruction (MAD) — between our two countries. Putin seemed annoyed — irrationally annoyed — with the Bush administration’s plan for missile-defense deployments so close to Russia’s borders. Obama pledged to review America’s missile-defense plans and get back to Putin on his decisions. Putin expressed less concern about the Iranian threat than Medvedev had. He talked more generally about the strategic importance of Russia’s bilateral relationship with Iran as its most significant partner in the Middle East.