Putin: Out of the Fire, Into the Fire

Putin: Out of the Fire, Into the Fire

February 24, 2005

By Victor Gubareff and Marla Dial

U.S. President George W. Bush wrapped up a fairly uneventful
diplomatic tour of Europe on Feb. 24 with a joint press conference
with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava. For days, we have
been brushing past discussions of Bush’s meetings with other European
leaders, focusing keenly on what could come out of the Slovakia
sessions — a tete a tete between important world leaders who find
themselves on opposite sides of a widening geopolitical divide.

The public discourse, of course, revealed no sign of tensions. Both
spoke affably and utterly predictably about the friendship between
their nations, as well as specific points of agreement — such as the
need to cooperate on fighting illicit trade in man-portable air
defense systems and shared views on nuclear nonproliferation.

Beneath these diplomatic niceties, however, lies a very real
predicament — particularly for Putin, who is finding himself
increasingly beset by difficulties at home.

It is no secret, particularly to the Russians, that the United States
has been making firm and steady inroads into Moscow’s traditional
sphere of influence, with pro-Western governments now installed in
states such as Georgia and Ukraine. And if that were not enough to
light a few nationalist fires, Russian news media on Feb. 24 carried
two important stories — one noting rising unemployment, the other
chronicling a dependence on consumer imports that experts said is
hampering Russia’s own economic development. Foreign influence

On an even more personal level, Putin in recent months reportedly has
been blasted by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as a
controlling leader who now tolerates no dissent within his inner
circle, and — significantly — he was the target of a Feb. 23 protest
by active and retired military officers who demanded steps to stem the
collapse of the Russian military and NATO encroachment within the

Against that backdrop, Putin met with Bush, who he knew could be
counted on to broach the subjects of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and
approach to democracy — both wild cards that, if not carefully
handled, could make him even more vilified as a U.S. lapdog than he
already is at home. On some levels, a strong rebuff of Bush would have
been in Putin’s best interests — but the prospect of being viewed as
a hostile state by Washington, which already is eyeing a number of
potential challenges in the Eurasian landmass, was a risky proposition
as well.

Russian sources close to the matter have told us that when Bush, in
private talks, suggested a joint monitoring program for Russia’s
active nuclear weapons, Putin essentially responded that to agree
would result in him being burned at the stake in Red Square. Bush then
asked for an agreement in principle — or, in other words, he gave
Putin the choice of being burned whilst doused in gasoline or being
slow-cooked, using only tender green saplings for kindling. In either
case, an agreement would be viewed by the Russians as a way of ceding
sovereign powers to Washington. Ultimately, Putin took the only out he
could — asking for more time to give Bush an answer (during which, we
suspect, he will cast about for flame retardants).

Discussions of democracy have been more publicly exchanged: Bush
earlier this week restated his foreign policy goals, which take a
critical view of freedoms in Russia; Putin responded separately that
Russia would achieve democracy on its own terms. During their joint
press conference, Putin (who we believe favors democracy along
Ataturkian lines — a long-term transition over which he solely will
preside) tried to gloss over the differences, speaking primarily of
“fundamental principles” rather than tactical steps.

“There are great differences between Russia and the U.S.” in practice,
he said. “If we talk about where we have more or where we have less
democracy, is not the right thing to do, but if we talk about how the
fundamental principles of democracy are implemented in this or that
historical soil, in this or that country — is an option, is

Though Putin did appear to make a subtle overture to the Russian
people — emphasizing that democracy “should not be accompanied by the
collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people” (a
reference to rampant corruption to which he has been accused of
turning a blind eye) — he ultimately jettisoned a very public
opportunity to portray himself as a strong leader who can appeal to
Russians concerned about their national security and cultural
identity. Putin, increasingly pressured to choose between U.S. or
Russian interests, has deferred the verdict to an unspecified later

In other words, he remains tied to the stake, and the torch-throwers
are lining up.