LAST MEETING

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BUCHAREST: VLADIMIR PUTIN AND GEORGE W. BUSH ARE MEETING FOR THE LAST TIME AS PRESIDENTS

The last meeting of Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in the presidential capacity.


Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush are meeting for the last time in this capacity. Their positions, however, are not exactly equal. The American political system does not leave Bush a single chance to have his protege elected the president, remain a key figure in his future administration, and become the president again four years from now.

Paradoxical as it may appear at first sight, but Putin and Bush needed each other, understood each other, and were doomed to semi-confrontation in public all through their respective terms of office. Bush became the president on the assumption that he would dramatically revise Bill Clinton’s attitude and therefore policy with regard to Russia. Washington had no more faith in “a new Russia” or “Boris Yeltsin’s democracy” (ironically, Clinton’s legacy from George Bush). This attitude actually tallied with the predominant moods and dispositions in Russia Putin eventually became the mouthpiece of.

The Bank of New York scandal became an important milestone in the struggle for new paradigms both in Russia and in the United States. It signified an end of the era of optimism bred by faith in conversion of different models of development.

Oil played a major part in political philosophies and even political careers of both presidents. It was oil that made their careers look definitely equivocal. When Bush said invasion into Iraq was necessitated by interests of global security and safety of America itself, his political opponents reiterated by saying that it was oil he was really after. Whenever Putin elaborated on the strengthening of the state and supremacy of the law in connection with the YUKOS affair, his opponents inevitably accused him of the banal desire to seize national oil assets. No wonder Bush had looked a “KGB agent” become the president of Russia in the eyes once and seen a man he felt he could trust.

In the meantime, senior officials of the Russian presidential administration and Putin himself complained afterwards that Bush and his Administration had failed to appreciate (and act on) the level of trust and depth of cooperation offered them by the Kremlin. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, concessions on Russia’s part were never adequately recompensed, i.e. Russia kept giving without being offered anything in return. The Kremlin with Putin in it never intended to quarrel with the United States and counted on a division of the spheres of influence and interests. Both administrations eventually honed their tactic of “criticism without actual confrontation” but Washington would never go for closer cooperation with Moscow.

Firstly, the very nature of the American political system restricted the scope of Bush’s compromise with the “KGB agent”. The second reason in the meantime was something Moscow had either overlooked altogether at first or at least underappreciated. The matter concerns the post-Soviet zone, probably the only region in the world where strategic interests of the two countries couldn’t avoid a fatal collision. No compromise was possible there. The impression is that the Kremlin realized it only in late 2004, when the battle for Ukraine was already lost.

The last meeting of the presidents will tally the results and accomplishments. Putin and Bush will discuss NATO, missile defense, and the new arrangement of state power in Russia. Putin seems determined to keep the reigns in his own hands, reigns in both domestic policy (changes in the status of governors show it plainly) and foreign. He needs recognition of this unprecedented situation from the West. As a matter of fact, the deal is essentially effected. The United States took the specifics of Russian election in stride. Withdrawal of Ukraine from the Russian orbit and sphere of influence is essentially a fait accompli, and Bush’s visit to Kiev the other day confirms it.

Who is the winner in this duel between the two presidents? Their friendship is. There were days at first when Bush’s Administration kept telling everyone within earshot that it was not going to take any unilateral steps in the post-Soviet territory that might collide with interests of Russia. Today we see the process of absorption of Ukraine into NATO as practically irreversible. Putin told his US opposite number again and again that he would serve his two terms of office and get out. We see these days that he intends to remain. Each to his taste.

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