There is a Bear in the Woods: A Common Cause 2000-2008

Tom Warwick

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth instatillation in an ongoing series exploring the creation of “Putin’s Russia” and its place in the international community.  Click here to read the preceding entries.

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.” – President George W. Bush

The relationship between Putin’s Russia and the West has been a series of ups and downs, resets and regrets.  While it has become rather cliche to use Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s quote about puzzles wrapped in enigmas, the lesser known half of this observation remains true today. As one navigates first through the relationship between Putin and the Bush Administration and, in the next series installation, the relationship between Putin and the Obama Administration one thing remains constant: the key to this puzzle is still Russian national interest. It is that national interest that has dominated Russia’s relationship with the West throughout the last two decades.

In 2000, after his initial ascent into office, two primary schools of thoughts had formed within the American Political Science community concerning Vladimir Putin.  The first, and relatively smaller group, believed that Putin was just the man Russia needed to turn the country around and restore a functioning democracy.  The second believed that Putin was nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and that the United States needed to keep a particularly close eye on this KGB-man turned President. In 2001 as George W. Bush assumed office in the United States, the wonks of the foreign policy community were quick to offer him advice.  The advice offered in 2001 sounds eerily familiar, and centered around the idea that Putin and his administration were espousing a nationalist agenda seeking to re-establish Russia as a great world power and to offset America’s global leadership position. The experts encouraged the new Bush Administration to take a firm line against their Russian counterparts and make clear that transgressions such as arm sales and support for rogue leaders would not be tolerated. Nine months later, just as it appeared that a strategy was coming together to deal with the Russians, the world turned upside down.  

When the first plane struck the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001, it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon in Moscow. Just hours later, the United States was officially on war footing, and had begun to move its military bases around the world into their highest alert designations. Putin and Russia had to make a choice.  A few years before, any movement of US or NATO forces would have triggered a reciprocal response by the Soviet Union out of suspicion. Instead Putin, in what would be President Bush’s first call with a foreign head of state after the attacks, told his counterpart that he was standing down his forces, cancelling all exercises, and offered the full cooperation of the Russian government.  While almost three decades removed from the Cold War, this action may seem insignificant it was at the time a major step in normalizing relations.  Then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice would recall that this call is when she realized that ‘The cold war’s really over.”  Ari Fleischer, and aide to President Bush, would later say that  ‘America could have had no better ally on September 11th than Russia and Putin.”

The partnership that was forming between Putin and Bush was one of common cause.  As mentioned in a previous installation of this series, Putin had gained early popularity in his own country by taking a hard line against Chechens terrorists.  From the beginning of his presidency, more than a year before the September 11th attacks, Putin had attempted to promote the idea of a concerted campaign against terrorism with western leaders.  He was one of the first to express concern about terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and to warn of the links between these camps, well financed terrorist networks, and militant groups operating in Eurasia. With the United States now fully committed to a “Global War on Terror,” to Putin it appeared that a new order where the West and Russia were equal partners in a fight against a common enemy was forming.

Unfortunately, this new partnership would not last. After an initial victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration declared two major policy shifts that would ultimately increase the divide between the two nations. The first major policy shift would come with President Bush’s first State of the Union Address and the Administration’s declaration of a new “axis of evil.” The axis of evil was made up of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all of which were countries which the Bush Administration believed were sponsoring terrorist organizations and seeking weapons of mass destruction.

The second major shift came one year after the September 11th attack when the Bush Administration released its first National Security Strategy.  Within this document was a promise “to forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense.” This statement would come to be known as the “Bush Doctrine” and it would become the guiding principle in the US’s new “War on Terror.” The Bush Doctrine ultimately proclaims to the world two interrelated declarations: “the United States reserves the right to use force preemptively against terrorists, their state supporters, and rogue states that seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction; and the United States would make no distinction between those who undertake terrorism and those who harbor terrorists.”

To Russia, who viewed Iran as a stabilizing force in the Middle East and Iraq/North Korea as an annoyance that could be contained, the interests of the United States no longer represented the interests of the Russian Federation. Additionally, the “anywhere/anytime” nature of the Bush Doctrine had caused the US-Russia partnership to become unpredictable. Suddenly, for Putin, it was not about what the terrorists would do next, but where and how America would strike and what impact it would have on Russia.

It would be the invasion of Iraq that would cause the wheels to really come off the diplomatic wagon. While the Bush administration had made progress with Russia on issues such as nuclear-arms proliferation, Putin had ultimately decided that the partnership was no longer mutually beneficial. Putin and Russia began to publicly criticize the Bush Administration and formally condemned the invasion of Iraq.  The experience of dealing the United States had exasperated Putin’s natural paranoia and caused him to grow deeply disenchanted with the Western nations.  Putin  even went as far as to announced that the West was treating Russia as a “vassal.” At a 2007 security conference in Munich tensions came to a head when Putin charged that “the United States has overstepped its national borders in every area” and that the “expansion of NATO was directed against Russian interests.” While this movement might seem inconsequential when one considers that half the members of the United Nation took similar actions, this decision marks a much wider turning point in Western – Russian relations and the reemergence of the “Junior Partner problem.”

This Junior Partner problem would become the crux of Putin’s policy towards the West in the coming years.  For Putin the time between 2000 and the 2008 had played to his insecurities and convinced him that no matter how accommodating (even if just in his own mind) he was, the Western powers had a deep-seated disinclination to treat Russia as a “full partner and respected member of the international order.”  This paranoia, present since his days in East Germany, would cause Putin to take off his democratic facade and increasingly move towards an authoritarian and nationalistic Russia.

Check back soon for the final installation of our “Bear in the Woods” Series as we explore Putin’s relationship with the Obama Administration and how it would ultimately lead to the interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.

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