By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 07/04/08):
Vladimir Putin seems to enjoy his meetings with George Bush. Little wonder. The canny Russian president invariably runs rings around his American counterpart, starting with their first encounter in 2001 when he somehow convinced Bush they were soul mates. Yesterday’s Black Sea summit was no exception.
A great deal of backslapping, verbal pleasantries and even a spot of spontaneous after-dinner folk dancing (by the ever ingenuous Bush) could not disguise the fact the Russian leader had once again slammed the door in his visitor’s face. More than anything, Bush wanted a deal on missile defence. It was his last chance to get it. It was what he had come for. And Putin sent him away empty-handed.
Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, put a brazenly good face on the outcome of the meeting and the Nato summit that preceded it. «This has been a fascinating and very successful trip … providing a firm foundation going forward,» he claimed. Russia had agreed in principle that cooperation on global missile defence was necessary. Nato had formally backed US plans to build anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.
What actually happened in Sochi was that Putin, despite prior speculation about a safeguards agreement and technical cooperation, stuck doggedly to his guns. He reiterated Moscow’s view that the planned deployments potentially threatened Russia’s security, would upset the European strategic balance and were probably unnecessary, given the rudimentary and unproven status of Iran’s offensive missile force.
Polls suggest Putin’s view is shared by majorities of voters in the Czech Republic and in Poland, whose government has yet to agree to the scheme. Much the same goes for public opinion throughout most of western Europe.
In Britain, the government’s failure to consult prior to its agreement last year to facilitate Bush’s wheeze at RAF Menwith Hill is a continuing source of anger and concern.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament released a statement last week signed by a cross-party group of 35 MPs calling on Gordon Brown not to commit Britain further without first putting the matter before parliament. That call appears to have been ignored except, ironically, by Putin.
Hadley’s claims of success at Nato’s Bucharest meeting also look decidedly thin. A key issue for Bush – although there was a bit of presidential legacy posturing going on – was the alliance’s continued expansion eastwards. What he wanted was a fast-track membership pledge for Ukraine and Georgia. What he got was Croatia and Albania.
Doubtless they are grateful in Tirana. But it was hardly a red letter day for freedom’s onward march.
It was, of course, Putin who exploded Bush’s big idea, by impressing upon energy partners such as Germany the negative consequences that might ensue for them if Nato went ahead. He is in the business of cowing and intimidating Russia’s «near abroad» neighbours, not allowing them to strengthen their security links with the west.
Placed in a wider context, Hadley’s claim that Bush and Putin together have been «good stewards of the US-Russia relationship» appears wildly at odd with the facts. While Bush obsessed over Iraq and the «war on terror», an oil-rich Putin in the past seven years launched a major strategic nuclear and conventional weapons build-up and went some way towards tearing up key arms control agreements such as the conventional forces in Europe treaty and the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty.
In other parts of the strategic wood, Putin continues to hamper US attempts to rein in Iran’s nuclear activities and encourage Serbia’s rejection of Kosovo’s independence. At home, meanwhile, he has presided over a stunning roll-back of civil liberties, democratic rights, and free speech and a Soviet-style centralisation of power and ownership around the Kremlin.
While all this has been going on, Bush – whose gratuitous actions provoked some of Putin’s more egregious moves – has largely stood back and watched. But while he will leave office soon, Putin looks like carrying on indefinitely. There are no lame ducks in Russia, it seems, and in the dysfunctional Bush-Putin relationship, no doubting who will get the last laugh.