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Analysis: Can Bush-Putin Friendship Heal All Wounds?

As Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush prepare for their meeting in Bratislava on 24 February, officials on both sides might be hoping that the two leaders' much-heralded personal friendship reemerges.

Such fellowship could help smooth over recent difficulties, such as the clash over the Ukrainian presidential election, and foster efforts to weather what some analysts call a "major crisis" in U.S.-Russia relations.

Speaking at a conference on U.S.-Russian relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on 8 February, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former aide to President Boris Yeltsin and head of the Polity Foundation, explained that Washington's support for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ruffled feathers in Moscow.

"Actually, Putin sympathizes [with] Bush. He supported the U.S. president in the [November] presidential election openly -- to the dismay of some," said Nikonov. "He still has some personal affection for Bush, although I think the chemistry of their relations suffered somewhat because of Ukraine.... Actually, the Ukrainian situation made Putin furious about the rest of the world, not just about Bush -- about the universe, I guess."

Not-So-Great Expectations

In light of the anger over Ukraine and similar disgruntlement over U.S. support for Georgia's Rose Revolution in late 2003, analysts' expectations of what can be accomplished in Bratislava are not high.

"Bratislava, I don't think, will open up a new era in the U.S. Russian relationship," Dmitrii Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center said at the same conference. "The mission of Bratislava as I see it is very different. We had a major crisis in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Bratislava is a chance for clearing the air somewhat and [to] talk about practical things that the two governments can engage in at the start of George Bush's second term and, if you like, at the start of a new term for Putin."

But expectations were similarly low when Bush met with Putin in June 2001 at the former's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Although only six years separates them in age, the two men were not expected to hit it off. Bush is the scion of a powerful political family, while Putin is the son of a machine-tool operator and a janitor/cook. Bush summered in the exclusive confines of Kennebunkport, Maine; Putin grew up in a collective apartment in the gritty urban environment of Leningrad.

While Bush's father headed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Putin labored at the Russian equivalent, rising only to a midlevel position after a 15-year stint. One was bred for political power; the other was plucked from obscurity and had power thrust upon him. Putin was virtually unknown at the national level some 18 months before Yeltsin anointed him as his heir apparent.

But the presidents did get along -- so well that Bush was prompted to make his now famous declaration that that he had "looked in Putin's eyes and got a sense of his soul."

A Common Understanding

A key to understanding the relationship between the two men lies in the fact that despite their starkly different origins, they share a central life experience.

James Richter, professor of political science at Bates College, has analyzed the two presidents' self-descriptions and found they agree on many of the personal qualities needed for effective leadership.

"There is one thing that stands out in both cases, and that is they [both] look back at some turning point in their lives," Richter said. "There is that one point where they found some self-discipline which turned their lives around, and they started a trajectory toward success. With President Putin, he was much younger. He was running around the streets with a bad crowd, and he discovered judo and a judo instructor. He became much more interested. And that sort of transformed his life. He went to college. And he went to university and he ended up in the KGB. With Bush, of course, it was a conversion experience, which led him away from alcohol and toward the presidency."

Both men appear to place a high premium on what might be characterized as "masculine" values such as personal strength, consistency, loyalty, and resolve. Both presidents stress loyalty in their appointments of cabinet members. Both maintain strict regimens of physical exercise and abstain from heavy drinking, and both men contrast such habits with those of their less disciplined predecessors.

Of course, if these were the only characteristics that they shared, the first summit might not have been such a success. But, as Bates explained, both men appear to have taken their faith in the redemptive power of self-discipline and projected it onto matters of statecraft. From their notion of self-discipline, they seem to share a belief that it is only self-discipline -- only their being in control -- that separates order from chaos.
One was bred for political power; the other was plucked from obscurity and had power thrust upon him.

"It's only self-discipline that got them to go on the straight and narrow, otherwise there is dissipation," Bates said. "I think they generalize this, project this, to the world at large so it is replicated throughout their rhetoric. They say we have to be strong, because the world is dangerous out there. The world is lawless and chaotic."

Both men, according to Bates, use the rhetoric of danger to expand and centralize the power of the state -- not only to protect against terrorism but also to discourage dissent and encourage their vision of moral self-constraint. At the international level, they are both seemingly distrustful of multilateral institutions.

"This self-discipline is also projected onto the body politic, which is Russia and the United States," Bates said. "And this control of the body translates into a kind of emphasis on sovereignty and the notion of being able to ensure the sovereignty of the state, so they both as a result are less willing to move toward multilateralism."

Sovereign View

In an essay titled "Why did Russia Welcome A Republican Victory?" Mikhail Rykhtik of Nizhnii Novgorod State University agreed with Bates's contention that the Bush and Putin share certain conceptions. Both have a state-centric worldview. He wrote that Republicans "do not trust international organizations and fight for unlimited sovereignty when American national security is at stake.... Putin's Russia has the same attitude towards international organizations and a similar understanding of state sovereignty."

Issues of state sovereignty and self-determinism might come up at this summit. At a U.S. Senate hearing on 18 February, a panel of experts urged Bush to raise the topic of the quality of Russia's democracy with Putin at the summit. However, some analysts counter that putting such a topic on the agenda would only serve to provoke Putin's ire. Nikonov, who said he had spoken recently not only with Putin aides but also with Putin himself about the summit, said the Russian president would simply not respond.

"Putin does not see any problem with democratic development of Russia. He personally describes the recent developments in the country as the transformation from the failed democracy of Yeltsin to functioning democracy of Putin," Nikonov said. "And I can easily imagine the exchange on values and democratic developments between Bush and Putin in Bratislava. In my mind, Putin's response will be something to the extent that you'd better care about how they count votes in Florida. Putin really does not think that he has any problems with human rights."

However, Bates argued that President Bush might well choose to raise "values issues" rather than purely pragmatic policy concerns.

"I think the United States tends to underestimate the importance of Russia, and so, as a result, it indulges itself in having a more values-based policy toward Russia," Bates said. "But yes, from Putin's perspective if they push the values, then Putin [and Bush] will [have] less and less a personal tie. But [Putin] will still deal with the U.S. in very instrumental ways. You can't really afford to alienate the U.S. It's just too powerful."

Bookmark RFE/RL's special "Bush-Putin Summit" web page for on-the-ground reports and keen insight and analysis of the 24 February meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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