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Our new best friend?

Bush heads to Moscow this week to complete an arms deal. The inside story of how he decided Putin was his kind of guy

Our new best friend?

By James Carney/Washington
With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow

Early in his Presidential campaign, George W. Bush was on a four-mile run with a reporter when he began ruminating on the nature of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB lieutenant colonel who had become Russia's President. "Anyone who tells you they've figured Putin out," Bush said, "is just blowing smoke." Months later, on the eve of Bush's inauguration, his soon-to-be National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, stood near a cocktail-party buffet table with a glass of white wine in her hand and predicted a gloomy future for U.S.-Russian relations. "There are a lot of bad things happening in Russia now," she said. "We don't have any reason to trust Putin."


So much for history. This week, as Bush and Rice escape the din of post-Sept. 11 questions and recriminations and arrive in Moscow for what will be his first-ever visit to Russia, the President will hail the leader he once viewed with so much suspicion as a trusted friend--and Russia as a close American ally. He and Putin will sign a treaty committing both nations to slash their strategic nuclear arsenals from 6,000 warheads to a maximum of 2,200. Then the Russian President will give his American buddy a tour of St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, reciprocating the hospitality Bush showed Putin at his Texas ranch last November. The following week they will be together again, this time in Rome, where they are expected to sign an agreement giving Russia a kind of junior partnership in NATO, the cold war military alliance created to confront the Soviet threat. Rice, who shares her boss's newfound optimism about Russia and its leader, fairly gushes when she describes the transformation. "To see the kind of relationship that Presidents Bush and Putin have developed and to see Russia firmly anchored in the West," she told TIME last week, "that's really a dream of 300 years, not just of the post-cold war era."

That dream, if it comes true, holds great promise for both countries. Warmer ties have already given the Bush Administration more freedom to pursue missile defense, a partner in its war on terrorism and the possibility that Russia will go along with Bush's plan to try to topple Saddam Hussein. Washington also hopes that Russia, which produces 10% of the world's oil, can help ease U.S. dependence on Middle East supplies. Russia in turn has won not only closer ties to NATO but also tacit acceptance of its war on the rebel Chechen republic and the promise of greater economic integration with the West. Disputes remain between Moscow and Washington--chief among them, Russia's alleged aid to Iran's nuclear-weapons program--but relations are better now than at almost any other time since World War II.

That would not be so surprising if foreign-policy savants in the U.S. and Europe had not been warning as recently as a year ago that Bush's policies were destined to provoke another arms race and launch a new cold war. When Bush began his campaign in 1999, his views on Russia were drawn mainly from Rice, a Sovietologist who worked in his father's White House and who served as the Texas Governor's foreign-policy tutor. Bush shared Rice's pessimism about Russia's progress in the 1990s and echoed her critique of Bill Clinton's overly "romantic" image of Boris Yeltsin as the embodiment of democratic reform. Rice even suggested in 1999 that U.S. policy should seek to "contain" and "quarantine" Russia. "The President and Condi didn't want anything to do with Russia when they came in," says a former top aide to the first President Bush. "They thought they knew who Putin was--a throwback to the old days--and they had no interest in finding out if they were right."

Bush's advisers say the key to his attitude adjustment regarding Putin was the two leaders' first encounter, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, last June; Bush decided within two hours of meeting him that Putin was a man he could trust. Bush's remarks--"I looked the man in the eye," he said, and "I was able to get a sense of his soul"--elicited snickers from journalists and grimaces from his advisers, who feared Bush was swooning over Putin the way they had accused Clinton of falling for Yeltsin. Former Clintonites rolled their eyes at the irony. "I've known Putin for seven years," says Sandy Berger, who held Rice's job under Clinton. "I've looked him in the eye many times. And all I've ever seen is him looking back at me."

Bush's effusions notwithstanding, the lovefest in Ljubljana was more a product of strategy than chemistry. At a White House briefing with outside experts before the summit, Bush telegraphed an intense desire for his first encounter with Putin to go smoothly. In the first few months after taking office, Bush was under constant assault by European allies for his unilateralist foreign policy, including his snubbing of Moscow. Among the signs of disrespect: the ouster from the U.S. of 50 alleged Russian diplomat-spies in March 2001, the five-month delay before setting a first Bush-Putin meeting, and the threat, since carried out, to withdraw unilaterally from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty in order to build a national missile-defense system. British Prime Minister Tony Blair personally urged Bush to tone down the rhetoric and engage with Putin. Others, including some veterans of the senior Bush's Administration, lectured the President and his advisers that Russia still mattered and should not be ignored. By June, says a current adviser, "it was beginning to sink in."

Putin had his own agenda. Not long after he took over from Yeltsin in late 1999, the new Russian President began making overtures to the West, first to Blair and then to NATO. Faced with an economic crisis, Putin believed he had no choice but to speed Russia's integration into the world economy. To succeed, he would have to win over the leader of the world's only "hyperpower," as the U.S. is sometimes called in Russia. Before Ljubljana, says a former aide, Putin "devoured an enormous amount of information on Bush and everything related to him." He knew that Bush put great stock in his ability to judge people face to face and that charming Bush would pay diplomatic dividends. Like the former spy he is, Putin set out for Slovenia determined, it seems, to play the character his mission required.

What Putin achieved in Slovenia he cemented on Sept. 11, when he was the first foreign leader to call the White House after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. With the President circling 35,000 ft. above Florida aboard Air Force One, Rice took the call. Putin said he knew U.S. forces were being placed on high alert but that he would order his own military to stand down--a break from cold war tradition, when any escalation of military activity by one side was seen as a potentially hostile move by the other. "It was a metaphor for the changed nature of the relationship," says Rice. "For the next several days, it was one of the first things the President mentioned in conversation." A few months later, Putin made an extraordinary concession when he agreed to the stationing of American troops in some former Soviet republics in central Asia to facilitate the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Cozying up to America poses risks for Putin. His embrace of the West has critics in the military and elsewhere quietly grumbling that he has been "Gorbachevized," that he's selling Russia out in exchange for a pat on the head from the U.S. President. In a poll of Russians published last week in Izvestia, 52% of the respondents said they still view NATO as a threat to Moscow, while a newspaper sourly announced the arms accord with the headline Russia has lost the nuclear war. Still, Putin has kept his generals happy by waging an aggressive and often brutal war in the renegade Chechen republic. And despite some reservations about his foreign policy, Putin remains popular with the Russian people for bringing some order back to society.

He did manage to convince Bush that any nuclear-arms accord should be enshrined in a new treaty, something the U.S. President had insisted was unnecessary. But the treaty itself is a flimsy document. Its three pages include no timetable for the reduction of warheads, just a promise to have it all done by 2012, when it expires, and no formula for establishing compliance. It doesn't require any warheads to be dismantled or destroyed, meaning they can and will be stored for possible use in the future. U.S. insistence on this point was particularly troubling to the Russians, but Putin, who can't afford to maintain a large strategic arsenal in any case, acceded to it in the end. "There's no actual reduction," complains Jim Steinberg, a top foreign-policy adviser to Clinton. "It's just an agreement on the deployment of forces. You can't even call it an arms-control treaty."

But Putin can argue that there are other benefits to his rapprochement with Washington. While previous arms-control treaties have painstakingly dictated force structures, this one gives Russia's generals maximum flexibility in the way they deploy nuclear missiles. Even if full membership in NATO remains, as a Bush Administration official puts it, "a long way off" for Russia, the new accord gives Moscow a seat at the table with the alliance's 19 full-fledged members for discussions on fighting terrorism and arms control. There also remains what Coit Blacker, a Stanford professor and close friend of Rice's, calls "the elusive promise of economic cooperation." Putin is beginning to allow foreign access to Russia's vast petroleum reserves, but trade and investment in other sectors will lag as long as the nation's business laws remain inscrutably complex and arbitrarily enforced.

Another thing Putin wanted--America's acquiescence to his military campaign in Chechnya--in many ways has already been received. Because of Rice's conviction that U.S.-Russian relations should focus on strategic issues instead of internal affairs, the Bush Administration downgraded Chechnya as a point of contention, and that disposition only hardened after Sept. 11. "Putin wants us to legitimate what he's doing in Chechnya, to equate it with the war on terrorism," says Michael McFaul, another former colleague from Rice's days as a professor and provost at Stanford. "He wants Bush to come to Moscow and say, 'We're in this war together.'"

Given Russia's cooperation so far in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, including its sharing intelligence about al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Bush is apt to comply. He is also expected to gloss over Putin's authoritarian crackdown on his country's fledgling independent media, as well as his making the national legislature, the Duma, a totally servile body. "The things about Putin that Bush and Condi criticized during the campaign have only gotten worse in the past two years," says McFaul. "It's not like Putin's suddenly changed his ways at home."

Rice acknowledges the limits to the new relationship. "There are still some hard issues with the Russians," she says. The hardest, by far, is Moscow's refusal to stop supplying Iran--which Bush identified as a member of the "axis of evil"--with know-how that the U.S. fears could be used in Tehran's drive to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Russians, who have been helping Iran build a civilian reactor in the southwestern town of Bushehr, vehemently insist they have imposed strict controls on their exports that rule out sharing any sensitive technology. American intelligence officials disagree, though they refuse to disclose their evidence.

To help Bush better understand the Russian mind, Rice recently gave him several books, including her favorite--Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The President is reading it now, but whether a novel about human weakness and the power of guilt will give him any clues on how to deal with his Russian counterpart isn't clear. More than likely, Bush will rely on the same instincts that told him in Slovenia that Putin was a man he could trust. After the visit, Bush aides expect the relationship between the two to grow stronger. Rice goes to great lengths to emphasize that Bush is not basing his Russia policy on his personal chemistry with Putin. But the distinction is hard to discern. After all, the next time Bush needs to talk to his friend in the Kremlin, that once mysterious former kgb agent, he will probably call Rice into the Oval Office and, using his pet nickname for the Russian leader, say, as he has in the past, "Get me Pootie-Poot on the phone!"




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