How to Reinvigorate the Relationship

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To most analysts of international affairs, whether based in London, Moscow or Washington, President Vladimir Putin's behavior during the run up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq was very predictable. From a classic realpolitik perspective, Putin behaved rationally. Russia had concrete interests in the preservation of the status quo in Iraq, and U.S. military intervention threatened those interests.

More generally, from a realist perspective, Russia -- like France and Germany -- had nothing to gain from another demonstration of U.S. military might.

Even if Putin, at a pragmatic level, understands that he lives in a unipolar world dominated by the United States, he would prefer to see the emergence of a multipolar world in which Russia is one of the poles. His policy on the Iraq war gave him an opportunity to stand with the so-called anti-imperialists -- a cheap normative victory for Russia that has won few normative points from the international community in recent years.

President George W. Bush, however, did not fully understand Putin's behavior, because the U.S. president does not always view the world through a realist lens. In addition to power and interests, Bush believes that relationships between individual leaders also matter. Rightly or wrongly, Bush believed that he had a "special friend" in the Kremlin. In times of need, people expect support from their friends. In his time of need in the debate before the Iraqi war, Bush was puzzled by Putin's decision to stand together with the French and Germans, and not with his American friend.

Bush, it must be remembered, thought that he had established a special relationship with his counterpart in Moscow. At their first meeting in Slovenia in June 2001, Bush went out of his way to reach out to Putin on a personal level. The U.S. president is not a scholar or strategic thinker -- he is a former businessman. And as a businessman, he understands the importance of personal relationships in getting things done. Because he had some important business with Putin at the time -- first and foremost the abrogation of the ABM Treaty -- Bush deliberately tried to foster a personal bond with Putin during their very first encounter. At this meeting, Bush reported, "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."

Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to move the two presidents even closer. For the first time since World War II, the leaders in the Kremlin and the White House had a common enemy. In words, both Bush and Putin spoke in tough terms about destroying terrorists wherever they may be. In deeds, the two presidents cooperated in bringing down the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a result of these experiences, Bush thought that real chemistry had developed between him and Putin. Putin visited Bush's home in Crawford, Texas, and Bush traveled to Putin's hometown, St. Petersburg. Although we do not know what Putin actually thought about Bush as a person, we do know that Bush was very impressed with Putin as an individual. "Friend" was a word used by him to describe their relationship. Importantly, Bush had not developed any such relationships with his counterparts in German or France. On the contrary, well before the war in Iraq, it was widely known that Bush despised both Gerhard Schr?der and Jacques Chirac. While Bush tried to speak with Putin frequently, he rarely spoke to Schr?der or Chirac.

The Bush administration firmly believes that Putin made a major miscalculation in not supporting the U.S. position on Iraq in the lead-up to war.

Paradoxically, however, Putin's decision not to back the war in Iraq will not have long-term negative implications for U.S.-Russian relations because Bush is so eager to repair his friendship with Putin.

In coming to St. Petersburg on June 1 (and spending the night, unlike his "stopover" in France at the G-8 summit, after which he plans to sleep in Switzerland), Bush will be signaling his mending fences priorities as regards the countries of the "coalition of the unwilling" -- Russia first, Germany second, France third.

Why is Russia at the top of the list? Analysts and diplomats like to talk about the common geostrategic interests that are pushing the two countries back together -- controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction and fighting terrorism top the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Russia can be useful in dealing with these issues, Germany and France less so.

But there is another political and personal reason for Bush. He needs to patch up the relationship with Putin and re-establish the fact (or even illusion) that the two presidents have an intimate bond and have turned around U.S.-Russian relations after the dismal years of the Clinton-Yeltsin era. Bush has never claimed to have a special bond with Schr?der or Chirac, but he did make the claim with Putin. He has a real stake, therefore, in getting things back to the way they were pre-Iraq crisis. Bush also needs a few successes in mending fences with key countries after the war in Iraq, since Democratic Party presidential candidates have already begun to criticize him for doing too much collateral damage to U.S. international interests by the way he conducted the war. A turnaround in U.S.-Russian relations would serve as the perfect rebuttal to these presidential hopefuls.

So, ironically, the context is ripe for improved relations. But to do what?

What is strikingly absent from U.S.-Russian relations is any new big ideas which might actually signal that the relationship has recovered from Iraq and is special. The current agenda -- Jackson-Vanik, chicken and steel imports, visa regimes, WTO membership -- seems rather small. Moreover, the Bush administration is totally consumed with Iraq and, more broadly, the Middle East and therefore is unlikely to suggest any new big ideas for the foreseeable future. Bush and his team have undertaken a lot of major foreign policy initiatives in the past two years. They will be content to work these marginal issues.

This creates another window of opportunity for Putin. Instead of waiting to react to what the United States proposes -- the conventional Russian approach to U.S.-Russian relations over the last decade -- Putin could really seize the moment and put forward his own suggestions for grand new initiatives. A real deal on North Korea? A creative trade halting Russian transfer of nuclear technologies to Iran in exchange for a massive, cooperative R&D program on missile defense?

Bush and his team will be receptive to new ideas for improving U.S.-Russian relations. The real question is does the Kremlin have any.

Michael McFaul is professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is "Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.