Where Bush and Putin Part Ways

While they have much in common and seem to genuinely trust each other, they remain at odds over putting a new arms control deal on paper

By Stan Crock

President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed at their summit in Crawford, Tex., that they have a lot in common. Both are straight-shooters. And both see a need to bring their nation into a new era. Two other similarities get less attention -- and that might explain the strong bond between the leaders.

The first: Both leaders took office with questions lingering about their political legitimacy. The second: Both in different ways are trying to reenact the interaction between former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev more than a decade ago -- a collaboration that led to a dramatic arms reductions and relaxed tensions between the superpowers.


  It was pure coincidence, but the legitimacy issue raised its head again just before the recent summit, when news organizations that conducted a recount of the Florida Presidential balloting released their findings. While last year's Presidential election flap had largely been forgotten since September 11, the new vote counts show Bush probably lost the popular vote in Florida but won in the counties where then-Vice-President Al Gore had sought a recount.

The questions about Putin aren't so well known in the U.S. Back in February, 2000, when Condoleezza Rice was then-Governor Bush's foreign policy adviser, she questioned whether Putin could legitimately lay claim to the Russian Presidency that Putin's mentor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, so wanted him to have.

The Bush team had long been opponents of Yeltsin. During the first Bush Presidency, Administration officials -- some of whom are back in positions of power now -- sided with Gorbachev against the upstart Yeltsin, who was pushing for faster reform. Then came the Clinton Administration. From the sidelines, the Bush folks carped that the Clintonites were being too chummy with Yeltsin. After Yeltsin handpicked the obscure Putin as his successor, the Bush team denounced the decision. "Boris Yeltsin doesn't trust democracy," Rice told BusinessWeek a year-and-a-half ago. "He decided to hand the Presidency to Putin and made certain there will be no competition."

All that's forgotten now. "The guiding rule is love the one you're with," wryly observes Steven R. Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was a top Russia hand in the Clinton Administration's State Dept.


  There's more to it than that, though. Bush and Putin clearly have bonded. Where once people raised questions about whether they should be in office, they have emerged as secure leaders, trying in different ways to emulate their predecessors. Bush, of course, is trying to build the missile-defense system Reagan dreamed of but couldn't achieve. That, Bush hopes, will be a key part of his legacy.

Putin seems to have one of Gorbachev's favorite Russian sayings on his mind. It was a saying that so intrigued Reagan that he, too, began to use it when the two sat down to negotiate arms reductions in the 1980s. "Trust but verify," Gorby liked to say. When Putin insisted -- to Bush's chagrin -- on writing proposed nuclear warhead cuts into a treaty, he was in effect repeating the same mantra.

Much as Bush tries to emulate Reagan, he is also trying to follow his father's lead. The elder Bush withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, without a written treaty signed with Moscow. Gorbachev, who was fighting off Yeltsin at the time, followed suit. The younger Bush knows Russia can't afford to maintain its current arsenal of 6,000 strategic warheads. So, Bush argues, there's no need to haggle in Geneva for years. Putin won't hear of it.


  Why are they poles apart on this issue? Putin views close ties with the West as the way to secure Russia's long-term economic health, but he also sees a written agreement as a way of securing Russia's long-term security interests. The power of a piece of paper is evident from the Bush Administration's reluctance to walk away from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Indeed, Bush's hesitance can only bolster Putin's insistence on a warhead-reductions pact to protect Moscow against precisely the kind of strategic shift taking place in missile defense.

For Bush -- who comes from a state where looking someone in the eye and a firm handshake are as good as a man's word -- the vision is far different. He doesn't want to put a straitjacket on future Administrations like the one the ABM Treaty has imposed on him. Adversaries, Bush argues, need written agreements. Friends don't. (That notion ignores the NATO alliance's treaty. In fact, the first big boost in the war on terrorism was NATO's rapid invocation of Article 5, which declares an attack on one member to be an attack on all members.)

Truth is, Bush and Putin in their own ways are saying that a signed document really does matter in foreign relations. Putin needs one right now. Bush fears it. But Bush hinted that he might cave on the issue and agree to put in writing the pledge to slash warheads to roughly 2,000, from about 7,000.

In return, Putin might agree to allow the U.S. to do the kind of testing that could produce a missile shield. If the kind of bargaining savvy and leadership both men have shown to date produces such a result, these two leaders who faced initial questions about legitimacy could end up sharing a legacy of renewed glasnost, even friendship, that further reduces fears of nuclear annihilation on both sides.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht