Feature

Grading the President: A View From Russia

When George W. Bush took office, most politicians and commentators in Russia viewed the new president with skepticism and concern. The Russian media portrayed him as an amateur in foreign affairs and expressed alarm at his determination to withdraw from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and to bring the Baltic states into NATO. At the same ...

When George W. Bush took office, most politicians and commentators in Russia viewed the new president with skepticism and concern. The Russian media portrayed him as an amateur in foreign affairs and expressed alarm at his determination to withdraw from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and to bring the Baltic states into NATO. At the same time, Russian officials and politicians across the political spectrum were troubled by the administration’s initial inclination to dismiss Russia as a declining power.

Russians were accordingly reassured in June 2001 when Bush looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul and declared that he was prepared to work with the Russian leader. Bush’s determination, straight talk, and willingness to extend an open hand to the Kremlin impressed many in Russia. Even though Putin did not admit to having looked into his counterpart’s soul, he was clearly grateful for being treated as an equal. Meanwhile, Moscow’s irritation with Europe was mounting over the issue of transit visas for residents of the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, the strict European conditions for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and the especially harsh criticism of Russian conduct in Chechnya. This irritation led some in Russia to believe that a close partnership with the United States could provoke a realignment of the international system.

Eventually, however, disagreements over Iraq reopened a number of old wounds. This dispute had less to do with a fondness for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein than with the Bush administration’s clear demonstration of the limitations of Russian power and influence. It offended Russia’s national pride to recognize that Russians need the United States much more than it needs them. Russian officials also could not understand why the U.S. president was so willing to accommodate British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s preferences at the United Nations but was uninterested in making adjustments to suit Russian interests. This view failed to recognize that Russia was not offering to play the same role in the military campaign as Britain and did not have the same influence over key Western governments. Still, even some of the most pro-American Russian commentators — who acknowledged that Saddam’s regime was one of the most outrageous and bloody in the modern world — were disturbed by what they saw as Washington’s Brezhnevite conception of limited sovereignty that allowed the Bush administration to decide on its own which governments should stand or fall.

Despite such outbursts of emotion, the U.S.-Russian disagreement over Iraq need not have a long-term impact on the bilateral relationship or on Bush’s reputation in Russia. Although Putin issued a tough statement criticizing the U.S. attack on Iraq, he stopped short of predicting dire consequences for the relationship. The Russian president is known for giving priority to concrete Russian interests rather than harboring grudges. The country’s mood is also increasingly pragmatic. If the Bush administration takes Russian priorities into account in postwar Iraq and shows a renewed commitment to treating Moscow as an important partner, the current ill feelings will probably fade away like past anger over NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia.

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