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I, too peered into Putin's eyes: How paranoid he can get

Mort Zuckerman

By Mort Zuckerman

Published Sept. 8, 2014

 I, too peered into Putin's eyes: How paranoid he can get
What do you see in the eyes of Vladimir Putin? There's an equally important question that nobody asks: What did Putin see when he looked into the eyes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama? Did he see in Bush a commander in chief who was to stun him by invading Iraq? Did he see in Obama a commander in chief who would draw a red line on Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical warfare campaign and then chicken out, yielding Putin a diplomatic coup?

President Bush set off the fashion for reading retinas in 2001. He told us he looked deep into Putin's eyes and got "a sense of his soul," a reassuring sense of a straightforward leader the U.S. could do business with, who could be trusted to continue the deep thaw in the Cold War of the Mikhail Gorbachev era. Sen. John McCain didn't see that. He told us he saw three letters: "K," "G" and "B." So did Secretary of State Colin Powell. Vice President Joe Biden has said that when Putin showed him around the Kremlin in 2011, he told the Russian leader — no doubt in Joe's best jocular manner — "I don't think you have a soul." And Putin replied, "We understand one another." This was consistent with my experience from meetings I had with Putin, for he evoked the feeling of a hard-nosed tough man whom one should not tangle with unless absolutely necessary.

Bush has been ridiculed ever since for naiveté, but that's not fair. It fails to consider two things: the effect of American policy since that first encounter in 2001, and that the Putin of 2001 may not be the Putin of 2014.

Bush has told us in his autobiography that in his perception of a soul in President (and Prime Minister) Putin, he was moved by Putin's story of his mother's Orthodox cross rescued from a fire. But now Bush, the president-turned-painter, gives us a harsher view. He has recently agreed to exhibit his portrait of Putin and other world leaders (such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Afghan President Hamid Karzai) at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. His Putin is a chilling portrait of a stone face and dead eyes. "I had a good relationship throughout," Bush told NBC. "It became more tense as time went on." I'll say.

My own experience supports the perception that in his first few years running the country, Putin was not the anti-American nationalist and Russian imperialist we know today. Our first three-hour meeting at the Kremlin, in July 2003, left an impression not so much of a man of soul but a pragmatic man of steel determined to cut through the economic detritus of communism. I was impressed by his palpable self-discipline and mastery of the issues and by his forcefulness. He is not a man to take lightly. But he had purposes we could applaud then. He saw the erosion of the authority of the Russian state as central to the crisis in the rotten state he'd inherited, and he was surely right about the slide into decay under former President Boris Yeltsin and his drunken cohorts.

By 2003, after Gorbachev, some 70 percent of Russia's economic activity occurred in the private sector. The endemic shortages and endless lines for goods and services had gone with the planned top-down economy of centralized communism. The lives of women, especially the young and educated, had been transformed. This didn't begin with Putin, of course. The bloated military budgets had been cut back year after year beyond the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, leaving room for the consumer economy to grow.

Putin acknowledged he had a lot to do. He had yet to overcome the legacy of seven decades of totalitarian communism marked by state-sanctioned fear, corruption and murder, an economy based on mass labor and old-style industrial development. A substantial middle-class had arisen in the cities — but the rural areas were still overcast by decades of poverty, brutality and unimaginable corruption.

The economic improvements were sustained by Russia's increased ability to sell energy to Europe and the dramatic rise in the price of oil. By the time I revisited in 2006, Putin and his men of energy were supplying nearly half of Europe's natural gas and a third of its oil. By then, our hopes were severely disappointed that Putin would have democratized the political system and guaranteed civil rights. This was no longer the Putin who told the BBC in 2000, "I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world." But that is what he has brought on himself.

Europe made itself hostage to Putin as it became more and more dependent on Russian energy — with the consequences for foreign policy that we see today. Putin can more or less turn off the lights, and the European powers have gravely neglected their defenses; witness the failure to stand up for Kiev despite the Russian menaces on its border and its reckless arming of the separatists.

This matters because what has not been sustained, to our cost, is the change in Putin's attitude to the world. For many years, Russia fought two wars against the Chechnya-based Islamic separatists and retorted to rebukes about the destruction and deaths by telling the West it underrated the threat of radical Islam. We didn't take much notice. Yet on 9/11 Putin was the first foreign leader to phone Bush and provided logistical support for our campaign against the Taliban. In 2003, I reported he wants "to modernize the economy and integrate it into that of the international community." The West welcomed that. The group of six industrialized countries formed in 1975 to concert economic policies became the G-8 with the entry of Canada and Russia — a dramatic event now sent spinning in reverse with the group decision to penalize Russia for annexation of Crimea and the proxy war with Ukraine.

What went wrong? When Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, he also said: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia … but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia."

It was understandable that the Eastern European countries, so recently freed from the Soviet bloc, should want to be embraced in NATO, but we underrated the impact on Putin's ambitions and the humiliations heaped on Russia at the end of the Cold War. In a long article in The New Yorker, its editor, David Remnick, reports revealing conversations with former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul and, from Putin's side, with Aleksandr Prokhanov, the far-right newspaper editor who applauds the ambitions of the new imperial Putin. Putin hosted Obama in 2009 for what was supposed to be a time of relaxation in his dacha, but it turned out to be an indictment. He immediately castigated Obama for a history of U.S. deceptions as he saw them. McFaul, who was present, recalls, "It was grossly inaccurate, but that is his theory of the world."

Remnick goes on to recount: "Putin demanded that the U.S. cede to him the former Soviet republics — Ukraine above all — as a Russian sphere of influence. He felt that the United States had, in the glow of post-Cold War triumphalism, pushed Russia around." The claim was that because Gorbachev accepted German reunification, the trade-off was that NATO would not expand eastward. But "in 2004, NATO absorbed seven new countries — Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states," Remnick writes. Apparently Putin saw the Orange Revolution in Ukraine "as a Western project and a foreshadowing of an assault on him."

How paranoid can you get? It's a shocking misperception, but we have to reckon with the mind-set and history that produces it. We also have to reckon with what Putin sees when he looks into the eyes of Obama.

One guesses Prokhanov speaks for him: "America brought chaos to the Middle East. Al Qaeda has its own state. And now Obama doesn't want to send bombers to destroy it. We poor Russians have to go destroy it. Aren't you ashamed?"

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Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report.

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