MOSCOW — Summits have gone to the dogs. Gone are the days when a meeting of two presidents could change the world overnight, redrafting borders, changing governments and ensuring peace or war.
Probably, the last meaningful Russian-American summit occurred in 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush met on Malta: The Soviet leader agreed to withdraw from Eastern Europe, thus leaving it to become a potential U.S. sphere of influence.
Since then, the White House and the Kremlin have done a slow diplomatic waltz — consequential in that it has secured some sort of partnership between them, but not solving real issues and rarely addressing them seriously.
The talks last Thursday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Bratislava, Slovakia, followed the same pattern. Bush gently scolded Putin for cracking down on democracy in Russia; Putin mildly snarled back. Russia will keep selling arms to Syria and nuclear technology to Iran, although both Middle Eastern countries are on Bush’s blacklist.
U.S. officials said they were glad Putin declared that he didn’t want Iran and North Korea to become nuclear powers. But he would have been utterly crazy to say otherwise: Both Iran and North Korea sit right on Russia’s borders.
Putin’s promise to keep the Russian military arsenal out of the hands of terrorists was preposterous. The surge in organized crime that has devastated Russia the past 15 years would not have been possible if tens of thousands of weapons had not been sold to the mob by corrupt army officers. Worse, the Chechen terrorists and guerrillas that Russia has been fighting for more than 10 years did not get their weapons from Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda but from Russian armed forces warehouses.
Despite little progress or mutual understanding, the summit ended with Bush announcing that he still trusted “Vladimir.” It’s hard to say why Bush likes Putin so much. Maybe it’s because Putin was one of the few world leaders who greeted him warmly in 2001, when others sneered at the American president’s provincialism and lack of sophistication. Think of it as like summer camp: The guy who befriends you on the first day while others haze you remains your friend even after you realize later that he is a bully, too.
It is debatable whether Bush really cares about Putin’s authoritarian streak — or the authoritarianism of any other ally, for that matter. One of the most pampered friends of the White House, Saudi Arabia, is as undemocratic as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was, yet Bush maintains good relations with the Saudi royal family.
In all likelihood, Putin will remain Bush’s friend for the same reason the Saudis have: oil. Not only is Russia a leading energy exporter, but American companies have generously invested in Russia’s economy. Which poses a problem. Putin’s recent assault on domestic monopolies, some of which have been placed under state control, has caused understandable nervousness among American investors and casts doubts on Russia’s reliability as a partner in general. Still, there is no evidence that this matter was addressed seriously in Bratislava.
Another big problem is Ukraine. Having met with the new Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yushchenko — who two months earlier had taken advantage of a second election, following street riots and rallies, to wrestle away the presidency — Bush promised that the new Ukraine could join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if made democratic change permanent.
In the context of Russian-American relations, that statement was tantamount to Russia’s promising to send troops into Canada, for Russia regards Ukraine as its Slavic twin, a little brother hardly entitled to full sovereignty.
The eastward expansion of NATO, which seemed largely a symbolic gesture only 10 years ago when Russia seemed to have settled on the democratic path of development, has acquired new meaning. With the Kremlin growing progressively authoritarian domestically and assertive internationally, it is not inconceivable that one day the alliance may have to protect its new, post-Soviet members from Russia’s aggression.
In that event, protecting small Baltic states like Estonia will be hard enough, but providing a security umbrella for Ukraine — vast, strategically paramount and containing a 40 percent Russian minority — looks nightmarish.
With Russia’s standing in world affairs, Western Europe and the United States are likely to play down Putin’s domestic crackdowns on democracy even as they court him. However, the Russian president is growing testy with both Europe and America because, despite all the tokens of friendship offered, Russia’s sphere of influence keeps shrinking.
A year ago, the West supported a popular revolt in Georgia that brought an anti-Russian party to power. Now Putin is losing Ukraine. Extremists in Russia argue that foreign policy is faring worse under Putin than under his predecessor, the laid-back, hard-drinking Boris Yeltsin.
The post-summit press conference ended in an ugly way. Bush had kept a tense smile on his face (while Putin was just plain tense) until a Russian journalist asked Bush whether some journalists in the U.S. are being persecuted. It was a stupid question intended as a snub, and sounded as bellicose as questions asked by Soviet journalists during the Cold War days. No doubt Putin, or someone from his entourage, orchestrated the rebuke.
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