By DOUGLAS BIRCH
President Bush’s support for Vladimir Putin at their brief summit puzzles Russia scholars, who say the Russian president is being rewarded for behavior the West should be discouraging.
At the end of Putin’s visit to the Bush family compound on the rugged Maine coast, Bush praised the Russian leader for his truthfulness and frankness – evidence that Russia is once again considered a nation to be reckoned with.
“Here’s the thing, when you’re dealing with a world leader, you wonder whether or not he’s telling the truth,” Bush told reporters Monday. “I’ve never had to worry about that with Vladimir Putin. Sometimes he says things I don’t want to hear, but I know he’s always telling me the truth.”
Later, Putin seemed to equate Russia’s record on human rights and press freedom – both widely criticized – with that of the United States.
“Speaking of common democratic values, we are guided by the idea and principle that these are important both for you and for us,” Putin said. “Even in the, shall we say, sustainable democracies, mature democracies, we see basically the same problems … It has to do with the relationship with the media; it has to do with human rights.”
Bush did not react to the evident comparison.
Bush and Putin have had a personal friendship since June 2001, when both held their first summit in Slovenia. “I looked the man in the eye,” Bush told reporters after that meeting. “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
The friendship has undergone strains that might have wrecked others. In February, the Russian president accused the U.S., and by implication the Bush administration, of using “an almost uncontained hyper use of force” in global affairs.
And in recent months, Putin seemed to compare the U.S. to Nazi Germany, and threatened to target Europe with missiles if the U.S. builds a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as planned.
Michael McFaul, an expert on Russia at Stanford University, said he welcomes talks between the two leaders, but is puzzled by how easily the White House forgave and forgot Putin’s harsh rhetoric.
“He says all this, and for that he gets invited to a special event,” McFaul said. “It’s better that they’re cooperating than when Putin threatens the United States as if we were Nazi Germany. But suddenly we’re buddies riding in the boat … I don’t get it.”
Speaking of Putin’s comparison between Russia’s political system and that of the U.S., McFaul, an expert in how democratic societies develop, said Putin “has probably rolled back democracy further than any other world leader during Bush’s presidency.”
Sarah Mendelson, a Russia scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Relations in Washington, said she, too, was surprised by Bush’s comments that he found Putin to be honest and forthright.
“The last thing I would expect to hear anyone say about the Putin administration is truth, trust, comfort,” said Mendelson.
She was also troubled by Putin’s comments comparing Washington and Moscow’s relationship with the media.
Western experts have criticized the Kremlin for establishing control of most of Russia’s major television stations, which now rarely air critical voices. Mendelson said the Kremlin has failed to investigate the suspicious deaths of journalists.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, Putin’s warm reception by Bush was both a result of the friendship between the two men and a reflection of Russia’s restored strength and influence in the world.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told The Associated Press that some of Russia’s critics still wish it were in “transition” from its Soviet past.