Bush, Russia, and Iran, Part 1: Putin's Soulful Eyes

(Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

When Bush assumed office in 2001, relations between the United States and Russia were in the toilet.  After the 9/11 attacks, there was a spirit of cooperation as Putin lent support to the war in Afghanistan and offered assistance, if not military hardware or personnel. In the war against the Taliban, Putin personally held back some of his military advisers who opposed American bases being set up in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.  It was an attempt by Putin to illustrate cooperation, not competition.

That spirit of cooperation did not last long as a series of events changed things starting with Russia’s disapproval of the war in Iraq in 2003.  This was followed up by apparent US support for the “green revolutions” taking place in Georgia (also 2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005).  It appeared to Putin as if the United States was attempting to encircle Russia since Putin opposed NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.  By the time Bush left office, what started off promising ended in what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Russia that they were “headed on a path of isolation and irrelevance.”

Initially, Bush had claimed to have stared into Putin’s eyes and found that he had a soul.  By 2006, confiding to the prime minister of Denmark, he noted that hope had been replaced by exasperation.  Believing that some form of workable capitalism would eventually develop in Russia, instead he focused on a missile defense system along with nuclear proliferation and Russia’s early support of the Iranian nuclear program.

Early in 2002, Rice’s adviser on Russian affairs on the National Security Council, Thomas E. Graham, started to believe it was conceivable to think of a world without Russia at all.  The infamous eye-gazing incident occurred during the first meeting between Bush and Putin in June, 2001.     

In December 2001, Bush decided to terminate an ABM treaty.  The purpose of that June 2001 meeting was to resolve differences and extend the treaty.  Bush concluded that the current treaty could not be enforced, but offered out the promise of continuing negotiations to sign a revamped treaty.  In May 2002, the NATO-Moscow Council was created, but that ended when the Baltic states were admitted into the NATO alliance.

The start of the breaking point of relations was the Iraq war in 2003.  Russia aligned itself with leaders in France and Germany in opposition to US intervention.  This caused some within the Bush administration to have doubts about Russia’s commitments in helping with the war on terror.  To Bush’s credit, he did state that their disagreement over Iraq should not scuttle other areas where they agreed on cooperation and Bush invited Putin to Camp David in September,  2003. 

What 9/11 did was to create a change in philosophy within the Bush administration when it came to foreign policy.  Bush’s rhetoric took on a tone that endorsed exporting democracy abroad and the policy of “nation building” had new life.  With regards to Russia, the effect was ambivalence.  Russia had been the victim of terrorist attacks also and remained a faithful supporter in most instances of US efforts, despite disagreements over Iraq, in the war on terror. 

However, with the rise of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and their foreign policy centering squarely on democracy exportation, Russia under Putin was turning away from democratic virtues supported by the United States.  Only a few months after that summit at Camp David, Colin Powell became the highest ranking US official to publicly criticize Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and actions.  Leading up to the 2003 Duma parliamentary elections in December, Putin had arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky which led to the eventual break up of the oil giant, Yukos.  This was disturbing in the Bush White House because a year previous, the United States began negotiations that would have increased oil exploration with Russia and their preferred client was Yukos which had good relations with counterparts in the United States.  

In 2005, the administration’s criticisms of Putin became sharper.  In February, the two leaders met in Bratislava.  Realizing he needed a strategic partner in the war on terror, Bush refused to relent to Congressional demands that Russia, as long as Putin was president, should be expelled from the G8.  Instead, Bush stated an understanding of the difficulties in Russia and hoped that democracy would slowly, gradually and painfully emerge.

What also upset Putin were the “color” revolutions that took place in Georgia and Ukraine.  In May, Russia celebrated the end of World War II and Bush was invited to attend in 2005.  On his way to Moscow, he made detours to Latvia and Georgia and expressed support for future, colorful democratic revolutions.  Obviously, Putin did not see it the same way. 

Domestically, Bush’s biggest critic when it came to Russia was Congress.  Tom Lantos was the Democrat in charge of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  In alliance with Senator John McCain, since November 2003 they tried to advance a bill that would have tied Russia’s inclusion in the G8 to democratic reform.  By 2006, the political class claimed that Russia had built up a considerable list of sins.  Moscow ignored a quarantine of Hamas after its election in Palestine.  Russia had too-cozy a relationship with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his nuclear aspirations.  Russia was behind the closure of a vital airbase in Uzbekistan in 2005.  Moscow supported the Shanghai Treaty Organization, and Russia demanded that the US announce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. 

Next: The rhetoric heats up