- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

There is no doubt that President Bush is a personable sort of fellow, warm, friendly, funny, likable. In fact, you would rather think that he is all the things Russian President Putin is not. The Russian president is a former KGB agent and tends to come across as cool and calculating, a bit of a cold fish. These differences have not stopped the two from striking up an extraordinary personal relationship, the long-term consequences of which are yet to be determined.

Their jocular interaction was on display during the weekend summit in Leningrad, where the two joshed their way through news conferences and avoided unpleasant subjects such as human rights abuses in Chechnya or Russian sales of nuclear technology to Iran.

Several major developments followed. One was the signing of an arms reduction treaty to "reduce and limit strategic nuclear warheads," slashing stockpiles by two thirds over the next decade. The treaty also proclaimed a new U.S. - Russian relationship, with a stress on cooperation in the Middle East, joining in counternarcotics efforts, exposing financing of international terrorism, ensuring the safety of nuclear materials, fighting against AIDS and working for international free trade.

And yesterday, in Rome, the NATO alliance accepted Russia as a partner, with the creation of a NATO-Russia Council. Where the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact used to be NATO's enemy, Russia is now our ally in the war against terrorism. "Two former foes are now joined as partners, overcoming 50 years of division and a decade of uncertainty," Mr. Bush proudly pronounced. "We have come a long way from confrontation to dialogue, and from confrontation to cooperation," Mr. Putin concurred. He also said he looked forward to "a greater role for Russia in NATO" a step that the U.S. Congress surely ought to get an opportunity to review.

(It is of course true that many fancy and florid sentiments which were expressed before are now being reincarnated.)

For his part, the Russian leader has all but dropped objections to NATO's enlargement eastwards, which may include as many as seven new member countries. This is undeniably an extraordinary development, given Russia's fierce opposition during the 1990s. The exact number of new NATO members will be determined at the NATO summit in Prague in November, but one or several will probably be Baltic states, the first former Soviet republics to join.

Is all this good fellowship too good to be true? Is it built on a leap of faith on Mr. Bush's part which took place when he gazed into Mr. Putin's eyes at their first meeting in Slovenia last summer? Does it matter that Mr. Bush's nickname for Mr. Putin is Pootie-Poot? How far can personal charm and mutual admiration take a relationship between major international powers?

There is no denying that certain personalities riding the crest of a historical tide can make a difference. Unfortunately, there is also no denying that certain personalities get taken for a ride because they overestimate their own abilities to charm the opposition.

Mr. Bush may well be acting on the example of his father which may give the shivers to some. It is a fact, however, that the first President Bush's close and friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev helped change the course of European history, particularly in the peaceful unification of Germany. Managing the end of the Cold War was an extremely delicate task. It could have resulted in horrific bloodshed. The East German leadership was ready to take its cue from the Chinese massacre of Tienanmen Square protesters and was prepared to fight.

Similarly, the visions of Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany and President Francois Mitterrand in France were crucial for eradicating old enmities between their countries and for the development of the European Union as a bulwark against war on the Continent. It has been so successful that Europeans now seem to believe that war in general and the use of military power is hopelessly retrograde.

But dangers also exist in the personal approach. Franklin Roosevelt thought he could trust as an ally Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin Uncle Joe and was too weak in the last phase of World War II to see that the Soviets simply sought to replace the Nazi empire in Eastern and Central Europe. Two decades later, President Kennedy thought he had charmed Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev during their first meeting, only to realize his mistake when Russian missiles were discovered to be steaming towards Cuba, where they would be installed and pointed at the United States.

The verdict on the Bush-Putin friendship is yet to come, and students of Russian politics will surely advise caution. But if the two men have caught one of destiny's moments, this weekend could be one for the history books.


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