WASHINGTON – President Bush is guiding U.S. relations with Russia in a decidedly confrontational direction, evoking memories of Cold War bitterness.
It’s a marked turnabout from the sense-of-his-soul epiphany the president had seven years ago when he declared that Vladimir Putin was a trustworthy partner on the global stage. With only five months left in the Bush presidency, there is little time to repair damage in relations, much less capitalize on a new approach to make progress together on hotspots like Iran or North Korea.
Russia’s brutal invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia was the turning point.
“The administration is a bit behind the curve on this. They didn’t understand what was coming,” said Janusz Bugajski, director of a new European democracies project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
From the beginning of his administration, Bush emphasized personal diplomacy with Putin, Russia’s leader then and, apparently, still, even though now he is prime minister rather than president. The idea was that talking of warm ties at the top could will them into being, and then translate into cooperation on a range of issues.
But tensions emerged immediately, and only multiplied over the years.
The U.S. was alarmed by Putin-led democratic backsliding, a campaign against the Yukos oil company’s leaders and other consolidation of wealth and power in the Kremlin, Moscow’s war in Chechnya and evidence of manipulation of Russia’s vast energy resources to serve geopolitical aims.
Russia was infuriated at Bush moves to support reformers in elections in Ukraine and Georgia and back those former Soviet republics’ bids to join NATO, plus expanding Western missile defenses into Poland and the Czech Republic, and endorsing independence for Kosovo from Russian ally Serbia. Almost all Moscow’s anger grew from suspicions of U.S. meddling in its backyard, though acrimony over the U.S.-led Iraq invasion sent relations plummeting too.
There were some areas of cooperation, such as Putin’s hand of friendship after the 2001 terrorist attacks, a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty and Russia’s participation with the U.S. in a group of nations still trying to persuade North Korean to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.
But on an effort to thwart Iran’s similar ambitions, Russia has been an on-again, off-again partner. As a fellow permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia repeatedly has stood in the way of U.S. desires for tough action — not just against Iran, with whom it has deep economic ties, but against other bad actors such as the regimes in Zimbabwe and Sudan.
The net adds up to a negative.
Still, while Bush spoke candidly to Putin about differences, he also persisted with gestures aimed at courting him.
Putin is the only world leader who landed the Bush-reward trifecta: visits to the president’s Texas ranch, the Camp David retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains and his parents’ summer home in Maine. Bush even risked losing some of his democratic-reformer credentials by agreeing to attend Putin’s lavish Red Square anniversary celebration in 2005 of Soviet victory in World War II.
But there was a big problem underlying the basic strategy: Bush’s assumption that a weak, debt-ridden, post-Soviet Russia would seek to become more Western, and thus would share U.S. strategic interests, Bugajski said. The president also was distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russia, meanwhile, was operating on a very different view. Becoming ever richer off energy revenues, it worked to take advantage of what it sees as a declining America, to split the U.S. from traditional allies such as France and Germany, and to reassert its global role.
“The Russians are masters at playing the chess board,” Bugajski said. “There’s a whole number of issues they deliberately engineer to show they are an important power.”
Fast forward to the years-old tensions in the tiny former Soviet republic of Georgia that burst last week into full-blown war. After Georgia tried to exert military control over its province of South Ossetia, a separatist region loyal to Moscow, Russia launched a fierce invasion that routed Georgia’s forces and reached into Georgia proper.
Bush condemned Russia’s aggression, but left room for Moscow to turn itself around.
By midweek — when Russia was continuing incursions even after a truce — that approach was gone.
Bush strode to the Rose Garden with stern words that left little doubt that he wanted to directly confront Russia, though without any specific threat.
He launched a humanitarian mission inside Georgia, pointedly saying the U.S. would use its military “aircraft, as well as naval forces” to do it and warning Russia against interfering. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw no prospect for the use of U.S. military force, but that was almost beside the point.
Bush also laid the solidarity-with-Georgia language on thick, which in itself would be seen in Russia as provocative. The new but impoverished democracy has aligned itself with the West, with enthusiastic encouragement from the U.S., though it was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that Moscow was actually motivated by the kind of mentality that led to its quick and bloody put-downs of the Czech uprising in 1968 or the Hungarian revolution in 1956.
Gates, with long familiarity with Moscow as a CIA man for nearly 30 years and eventually its director, cautioned against dealing with Russia based on trust. He surmised that Russia, and particularly Putin, is not only interested in regaining its superpower status “but in reasserting Russia’s traditional spheres of influence.”
This view seemed reinforced by fiery talk from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who on Thursday said the world “can forget about” Georgia keeping the two separatist provinces.
Bugajski said a harder-edged view is a smarter way to deal with the Russians.
“They would respect the challenge,” he said. “They interpret weakness as a sign that they can go further.”
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the Bush administration has always been clear-eyed about Russia, and was practically forced into a re-evaluation of relations by the boldness of the latest developments.
“When you have a loss of life, it really elevates things,” Johndroe said.
Jennifer Loven covers the White House for The Associated Press.