Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

Vladimir Putin and the perception of reality

Image Credit: Northfoto /

Image Credit: Northfoto /

In the most recent edition of Russian Outlook, AEI’s Leon Aron describes the Kremlin’s new xenophobic and anti-American propaganda campaign. It’s key elements “include militarized patriotism and patriotic education; a selective recovery of Soviet symbols and ideals; the ultraconservative Russian Orthodox Church as the moral foundation of the regime; the promotion of a culture of subservience; and the intimidation, stigmatization, and repression of civil society.” In other words, a nasty piece of work designed to distract attention from Russia’s faltering economy and its leader’s disintegrating legitimacy.

In this context, it’s worth reading an excerpt from Peter Baker’s new book about the Bush-Cheney years, focused the Bush-Putin relationship.  The foolish and condescending title of the excerpt is “The Seduction of George W. Bush.” While recounting Bush’s unfortunate early remark regarding Putin, that “he got a sense of his soul,” the excerpt actually shows a President who corrected his false optimism and pursued realistic diplomacy to the extent possible. Baker specifically mentions how Bush employed Vice President Cheney as the proverbial ‘bad cop’, whose verbal attacks put Putin on the defensive. In early 2008, Bush also secured NATO’s commitment to eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine. That summer, when Russia invaded Georgia, Bush specifically put US planes on the ground in Tblisi to signal the unacceptability of a Russian advance on the capital.

Yet the real story here may not be about Bush’s evolving policies, but about the extent to which Putin is an autocrat in a bubble with a tenuous grip on reality.

During a trade dispute when Russia cut off imports of American chicken drumsticks (known colloquially within Russia as ‘Bush legs’), Putin in a private conversation with Bush asserted that Americans deliberately sent bad poultry to Russia. ‘I know you have separate plants for chickens for America and chickens for Russia,’ Putin told Bush.

Bush was astonished. ‘Vladimir, you’re wrong.’ ‘My people have told me this is true,’ Putin insisted.

Another anecdote illustrates Putin’s thoroughly conspiratorial view of American politics:

“You talk about Khodorkovsky, and I talk about Enron,” Putin told Bush. “You appoint the Electoral College and I appoint governors. What’s the difference?”

At another point, Putin defended his control over media in Russia. “Don’t lecture me about the free press,” he said, “not after you fired that reporter.”

“Vladimir, are you talking about Dan Rather?” Bush asked. Yes, replied Putin.

At another time, Putin seemed to think that he could simply bribe the American President, as if he were one more Kremlin stooge:

Bush said Putin had even tried to lure him by offering a lucrative job in the Russian oil industry to Don Evans, the former commerce secretary and one of his closest friends. “Putin asked me, ‘Would it help you if I moved Evans to an important position?’ What a question! ‘Will it help you?’” Bush was flabbergasted, he told Danish prime minister. “What I wanted to say is, ‘What would help me is if you make moves on democracy.’ It’s strange the way he thinks.”

If one is sufficiently committed to the belief that Putin is a savvy master of Machiavellian diplomacy, one might suppose that all of his unusual remarks to Bush were just a ploy to create the image of a dangerous dictator out of teach with reality. Or perhaps he really does believe the information provided by subordinates, who likely cater to Putin’s ignorance and cynicism.  In fact, these explanations may not be mutually exclusive. Putin may be as ignorant as it seems and have wanted to provoke or intimidate Bush.

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