President Bush, at his joint press conference with Russian Leader Vladimir Putin after their recent summit meeting, assumed a deferential posture, constantly repeating, “Thank you, Mister President.” “I thank you for being our loyal ally in the fight against international terrorism.” “I thank you that our countries are together moving along the path of democracy and the rule of law.” Mr. Putin majestically and condescendingly accepted the deference of the leader of the world’s only superpower, and from time to time delivered formally courteous, yet ever more caustic barbs at Mr. Bush’s foreign policy. We have never before seen such a Putin and a Bush. No one, for a long time, has witnessed this kind of Russian (Soviet) and American leaders, except perhaps at Yalta in 1945.
A rhyme came to mind which I learned 60 years ago in kindergarten: “Thank you that in the days of severe trials You in the Kremlin thought about all of us. Thank you, Comrade Stalin, that You live on Earth.” Comrade Putin does always think about America in days of severe trials. He announced after the Beslan tragedy that: “Islamic terrorists are merely an instrument in the hands of the more powerful, the more dangerous traditional enemies of Russia, who still perceive nuclear-armed Russia as a threat and seek to weaken and dismember her.” And he is thinking about America when he tries to squeeze the US bases out of Central Asia; and when he demands that a date be set for the withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition from Iraq (and how impatient he is for all of the international terrorist scum, which Americans have attracted in Iraq, will be free to go to the Caucasus and Central Asia); and when he provides political cover for Iranian ayatollahs desperately seeking nuclear weapons; and when he was thinking first of all about his beloved Americans while he was planning large-scale Russian-Chinese maneuvers, with the participation of strategic air forces, in an amphibious invasion. (Try to guess where the Chinese intend to make an amphibious invasion in the foreseeable future.)
The Americans are not so naive that they do not see and understand all of this. So, what forces them, in Winston Churchill’s famous formula, “to rise up and stand at attention” in Mr. Putin’s presence? Everyone understood what was behind Stalin in February 1945. But what is behind Mr. Putin in September 2005? Those in Moscow think there is a great deal.
A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official told me some days before the summit that Mr. Putin is traveling to the United States in a triumphant mood. He will feel himself Mr. Bush’s equal for the first time, if not more than equal — Hurricane Katrina especially inspired the Moscow geopoliticians. America has become overextended, has exhausted its resources and is suffering defeat on all fronts, including at home. Russia is rising from its knees. Our military maneuvers with China, the gas-pipeline contact with Germany, launches of strategic missiles, promising deals with Iran, the government crisis in Ukraine — all are powerful blows on the idea of a unipolar world that is cracking at the seams.
And the Yankees are swallowing all of this like darlings because they know that if they drop us as “strategic partner,” we will engage in such military technical cooperation all over the world that they will regret it. Now they even pay us billions of dollars “for the security of our nuclear complex.” “Yes, of course” an American, not a Russian, expert told me after the summit several days later, no longer in Moscow, but in Washington, “he’s no longer any damn ally of ours.” “But today we cannot permit ourselves a confrontation with him. Anyone else in his place might end up being worse. This one at least values invitations to Camp David and the ranch. And we don’t have so many friends left in the world that we can openly declare that Mister Putin is not one of them. And then, don’t forget that our president once looked deeply into Mr. Putin’s soul.”
It is as if Mr. Putin has found a universal instrument for solving, or rather avoiding, all of his problems, domestic and foreign: “Yes, I am possibly imperfect, but another will be worse.” When the mothers of Beslan embarrassed Mr. Putin with a sensitive question, he quietly said, “I’m working three more years and then I’m leaving. Then look what will happen…” A heavy pause followed this remark as an air of hopelessness settled over the room.
This, of course, is not a strategy either for foreign or domestic policy. But he was not taught strategy in his “university.” He studied German, agent recruitment, and “active measures.” And he mastered all these subjects assiduously.
Thank you, Mr. Putin that you live on Earth.
Dr. Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian strategic analyst from Moscow, who is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington, DC.