POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 24, 2014
WASHINGTON » Bill Clinton found him to be cold and worrisome, but predicted he would be a tough and able leader. George W. Bush wanted to make him a friend and partner in the war on terror, but grew disillusioned over time.
Barack Obama tried working around him by building up his protigi in the Kremlin, an approach that worked for a time but steadily deteriorated to the point that relations between Russia and the United States are now at their worst point since the end of the Cold War.
For 15 years, Vladimir V. Putin has confounded U.S. presidents as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again. He has defied their assumptions and rebuffed their efforts at friendship. He has argued with them, lectured them, misled them, accused them, kept them waiting, kept them guessing, betrayed them and felt betrayed by them.
Each of the three presidents tried in his own way to forge a historic if elusive new relationship with Russia, only to find their efforts torpedoed by the wiry martial arts master and former KGB colonel. They imagined him to be something he was not or assumed they could manage a man who refuses to be managed. They saw him through their own lens, believing he viewed Russia's interests as they thought he should. And they underestimated his deep sense of grievance.
To the extent that there were any illusions left in Washington, and it is hard to imagine there were by this point, they were finally and irrevocably shattered by Putin's takeover of Crimea and the exchange of sanctions that has followed. As Russian forces now mass on the Ukrainian border, the debate has now shifted from how to work with Putin to how to counter him.
"He's declared himself," said Tom Donilon, Obama's former national security adviser. "That's who you have to deal with. Trying to wish it away is not a policy."
Looking back now, aides to all three presidents offer roughly similar takes: Their man was hardly naove about Putin and saw him for what he was, but felt there was little choice but to try to establish a better relationship. It may be that some of their policies hurt the chances of that by fueling Putin's discontent, whether it was NATO expansion, the Iraq war or the Libya war, but in the end, they said, they were dealing with a Russian leader fundamentally at odds with the West.
"I know there's been some criticism on, was the reset ill-advised?" said Donilon, using the Obama administration's term for its policy. "No, the reset wasn't ill-advised. The reset resulted in direct accomplishments that were in the interests of the United States."
Some specialists said Obama and his two predecessors saw what they wanted to see. "The West has focused on the notion that Putin is a pragmatic realist who will cooperate with us whenever there are sufficient common interests," said James M. Goldgeier, dean of international studies at American University. "We let that belief overshadow his stated goal of revising a post-Cold War settlement in which Moscow lost control over significant territory and watched as the West expanded its domain."
Presidents tend to think of autocrats like Putin as fellow statesmen, said Dennis Blair, Obama's first director of national intelligence. "They should think of dictators like they think of domestic politicians of the other party," he said, "opponents who smile on occasion when it suits their purposes, and cooperate when it is to their advantage, but who are at heart trying to push the U.S. out of power, will kneecap the United States if they get the chance and will only go along if the U.S. has more power than they."
Eric S. Edelman, who was undersecretary of defense under Bush, said U.S. leaders overestimated their ability to assuage Putin's anger about the West. "There has been a persistent tendency on the part of U.S. presidents and Western leaders more broadly to see the sense of grievance as a background condition that could be modulated by consideration of Russian national interests," he said. "In fact, those efforts have been invariably taken as weakness."
After 15 years, no one in Washington still thinks of Putin as a partner. "He goes to bed at night thinking of Peter the Great and he wakes up thinking of Stalin," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "We need to understand who he is and what he wants. It may not fit with what we believe of the 21st century."
Clinton was the first president to encounter Putin, although they did not overlap for long. He had spent much of his presidency building a strong relationship with President Boris N. Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor, and gave the benefit of the doubt to the handpicked successor who became Russia's prime minister in 1999 and president on New Year's Eve.
"I came away from the meeting believing Yeltsin had picked a successor who had the skills and capacity for hard work necessary to manage Russia's turbulent political and economic life better than Yeltsin now could, given his health problems," Clinton wrote in his memoir. When Putin's selection was ratified in a March 2000 election, Clinton called to congratulate him and, as he later wrote, "hung up the phone thinking he was tough enough to hold Russia together."
Clinton had his worries, though, particularly as Putin waged a brutal war in the separatist republic of Chechnya and cracked down on independent media. He privately urged Yeltsin to watch over his successor. Clinton also felt brushed off by Putin, who seemed uninterested in doing business with a departing American president.
But the prevailing attitude at the time was that Putin was a modernizer who could consolidate the raw form of democracy and capitalism that Yeltsin had introduced to Russia. He moved early to overhaul the country's tax, land and judicial codes. As Strobe Talbott, Clinton's deputy secretary of state, put it in his book on that period, George F. Kennan, the noted Kremlinologist, thought that Putin "was young enough, adroit enough and realistic enough to understand that Russia's ongoing transition required that he not just co-opt the power structure, but to transform it."
Bush came to office skeptical of Putin, privately calling him "one cold dude," but bonded with him during their first meeting in Slovenia in June 2001, after which he made his now-famous comment about looking into the Russian's soul. Putin had made a connection with the religious Bush by telling him a story about a cross that his mother had given him and how it was the only thing that survived a fire at his country house.
Not everyone was convinced. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, privately told people at the time that when he saw Putin, "I think KGB, KGB, KGB." But Bush was determined to erase the historical divide and courted Putin during the Russian leader's visits to Camp David and Bush's Texas ranch.
Putin liked to brag that he was the first foreign leader to call Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he permitted U.S. troops into Central Asia as a base of operations against Afghanistan.
But Putin never felt Bush delivered in return and the relationship strained over the Iraq War and the Kremlin's accelerating crackdown on dissent at home. By Bush's second term, the two were quarreling over Russian democracy, reaching a peak during a testy meeting in Slovakia in 2005.
"It was like junior high debating," Bush complained later to Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to notes of the conversation. Putin kept throwing Bush's arguments back at him. "I sat there for an hour and 45 minutes and it went on and on," Bush said. "At one point, the interpreter made me so mad that I nearly reached over the table and slapped the hell out of the guy. He had a mocking tone, making accusations about America."
He was even more frustrated by Putin a year later. "He's not well-informed," Bush told the visiting prime minister of Denmark in 2006. "It's like arguing with an eighth-grader with his facts wrong."
He told another visiting leader a few weeks later that he was losing hope of bringing Putin around. "I think Putin is not a democrat anymore," he said. "He's a czar. I think we've lost him."
But Bush was reluctant to give up, even if those around him no longer saw the opportunity he saw. His new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, came back from his first meeting with Putin and told colleagues that unlike Bush, he had "looked into Putin's eyes and, just as I expected, had seen a stone-cold killer."
In the spring of 2008, Bush put Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership, which divided the alliance and infuriated Putin. By August of that year, the two leaders were in Beijing for the Summer Olympics when word arrived that Russian troops were marching into Georgia.
Bush in his memoir recalled confronting Putin, scolding him for being provoked by Mikheil Saakashvili, then Georgia's anti-Moscow president.
"I've been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded," Bush told Putin.
"I'm hot-blooded too," Putin said.
"No, Vladimir," Bush responded. "You're coldblooded." Bush responded to the Georgia war by sending humanitarian aid to Georgia, transporting its troops home from Iraq, sending an American warship to the region and shelving a civilian nuclear agreement with Russia.
Worried that Crimea might be next, Bush succeeded in stopping Russia from swallowing up Georgia altogether. But on the eve of the collapse of Lehman Bros. and the global financial meltdown, he did not impose the sort of sanctions that Obama is now applying.
"We and the Europeans threw the relationship into the toilet at the end of 2008," Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, recalled last week. "We wanted to send the message that strategically this was not acceptable. Now in retrospect, we probably should have done more like economic sanctions."
If Bush did not take the strongest punitive actions possible, his successor soon made the point moot. Taking office just months later, Obama decided to end any isolation of Russia because of Georgia in favor of rebuilding relations. Unlike his predecessors, he would try to forge a relationship not by befriending Putin but by bypassing him.
Ostensibly complying with Russia's two-term constitutional limit, Putin had stepped down as president and installed his aide, Dmitry A. Medvedev, in his place, while taking over as prime minister himself. So Obama decided to treat Medvedev as if he really were the leader.
A diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks later captured the strategy in summing up similar French priorities: "Cultivating relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in the hope that he can become a leader independent of Vladimir Putin."
Before his first trip to Moscow, Obama publicly dismissed Putin as having "one foot in the old ways of doing business" and pumped up Medvedev as a new-generation leader. Obama's inaugural meeting with Putin a few days later featured a classic tirade by the Russian about all the ways that the United States had mistreated Moscow.
Among those skeptical of Obama's strategy were Gates, who stayed on as defense secretary, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the new secretary of state. Like Gates, Clinton was deeply suspicious of Putin. In private, she mockingly imitated his man's-man, legs-spread-wide posture during their meetings. But even if they did not assign it much chance of success, she and Gates both agreed the policy was worth trying and she gamely presented her Russian counterpart with a "reset" button, remembered largely for its mistaken Russian translation.
For a time, Obama's gamble on Medvedev seemed to be working. They revived Bush's civilian nuclear agreement, signed a nuclear arms treaty, sealed an agreement allowing U.S. troops to fly through Russian airspace en route to Afghanistan and collaborated on sanctions against Iran. But Putin was not to be ignored and by 2012 returned to the presidency, sidelining Medvedev and making clear that he would not let Obama roll over him.
Putin ignored Obama's efforts to start new nuclear arms talks and gave asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the national security leaker. Obama canceled a trip to Moscow, making clear that he had no personal connection with Putin. The Russian leader has a "kind of slouch" that made him look "like that bored schoolboy in the back of the classroom," Obama noted.
In the end, Obama did not see how the pro-Western revolution in Ukraine that toppled a Moscow ally last month would look through Putin's eyes, said several Russia specialists. "With no meaningful rapport or trust between Obama and Putin, it's nearly impossible to use high-level phone calls for actual problem solving," said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia adviser to Clinton and now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Instead, it looks like we're mostly posturing and talking past each other."
As Obama has tried to figure out what to do to end the crisis over Ukraine, he has reached out to other leaders who still have a relationship with Putin, including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She privately told Obama that after speaking with Putin she thought he was "in another world." Secretary of State John Kerry later said publicly that Putin's speech on Crimea did not "jibe with reality."
That has sparked a debate in Washington: Has Putin changed over the last 15 years and become unhinged in some way, or does he simply see the world in starkly different terms than the West does, terms that make it hard if not impossible to find common ground?
"He's not delusional, but he's inhabiting a Russia of the past - a version of the past that he has created," said Fiona Hill, the top intelligence officer on Russia during Bush's presidency and co-author of "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." "His present is defined by it and there is no coherent vision of the future. Where exactly does he go from here beyond reasserting and regaining influence over territories and people? Then what?"
That is the question this president, and likely the next one, will be asking for some time to come.
Peter Baker, New York Times