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Bush, White House now leary of Putin as Russian turns back on democracy


July 21, 2006

WASHINGTON – President Bush departed the Group of Eight summit in Russia this week a little bit embarrassed by having casual comments picked up by a microphone. But at home he is much more challenged by a public remark he made and now wishes he had never uttered: his declaration five years ago that he looked deep into the soul of Russian President Vladimir Putin and saw a true democrat.

The two men still have a good personal relationship and genuinely seem to like each other – traits that were on display in St. Petersburg as the Putin hosted the annual summit of the world's leading industrialized democracies. But, nowadays, no one at the White House has any illusions about the former KGB colonel being anything other than an authoritarian with little tolerance for the workings of democracy.

Privately, Bush has expressed regret at the rhetorical exuberance he displayed after his first meeting with Putin at a castle in Slovenia. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” he said then. “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Bush's second thoughts come after five years of Putin cracking down on the media, the legislature, the courts, the political opposition and, more recently, civilian groups that promote democracy.

Putin's crackdown raises questions about the future of post-Soviet Russia and the direction of U.S.-Russian relations when Washington is struggling to keep the Kremlin on board in dealing with the outbreak of war in the Middle East. (The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized Israel yesterday for going “far beyond the boundaries of an anti-terrorist operation” in Lebanon.)

“I'm sure President Bush would like to have those words back,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a State Department adviser under President Clinton and a National Security Council official under President Reagan.

Bush also might like to have had back an expletive that was picked up by a microphone when he discussed the Middle East conflict Monday.

Carlos Pascual, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said, “President Putin has very much systematically dismantled many of the internal checks and balances with political parties, the parliament, the courts, the way the economy is managed.”

A senior administration official, who asked not to be named, said Bush is grappling with this reality: “We want to gain reassurances that Russia is, indeed, committed to democracy.”

But there have been few such signs, thwarting Bush's early hopes that his good relations with Putin would lead to policy gains.

“There's a personal chemistry between them,” said Sarah Mendelson, senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, she added, “sometimes I think – it's been about chemistry and not much else.”

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