Wednesday, February 23, 2005

On The Mark -- Bush-Putin "Summit"

There have been many journalistic perspectives written and spoken regarding tomorrow's meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin. Here's a generalized perspective based on two recent trips I made to numerous cities in Russia that included conversations with a number of comrades, young and old.

Putin very much wants to be viewed as a leading world figure -- a man (and country) who has influence on important world issues. He wants to have the same voice as Bush on the world stage, but will settle for that of Chirac and Blair. While it appears that he is taking Russia back to its Soviet ways, it's really the opposite of what he envisions. The majority of the people of this vast country prefer Westernization (this is backed up by numerous polls) and want to "be a part of the world," which they feel is passing them by.

The irony is that these same people wish Putin would spend more time taking care of and worrying about his own people, rather than what's going on outside its borders. Many believe that Putin, once very popular, has turned his back on the people in favor of trying to have a stronger world posture.

The irony is that Putin's recent un-democratic actions are isolating him and Russia from the Western world. So he's losing a two-front battle. Most of the people I spoke to believe that he doesn't realize this is happening yet (although that may be starting to change with the public protests that have been occurring since my last visit). The people I spoke to were forceful in their opinion that in order to be a power on the world stage, they must be strong internally and fundamentally. However, many people are living on $150 a month, finding that their housing fuel and water are rationed, and many cities are rife with corruption. Putin has dug himself a hole, internally and externally.

In public, Putin and Bush will smile, shake hands and be friends. In private, Bush will tell Putin that Russia must change its ways if it wants to be accepted in the European world. In private, Putin will say enough to appease Bush, but he also will pull no punches and say, "You should talk" (Abu Ghraib, 2000 election, etc.).

From my perspective, Putin is in a very similar position that Khrushchev was in during the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy recognized that Khrushchev needed the opportunity to save face with his own people so that it didn't look like Russia backed down. Kennedy gave it to him. I believe Putin is in the same position now. He needs the opportunity to look strong to his own people, while slowly gaining more of a voice on the world stage. If not, then Russia very well may feel like a cornered cat and, well, raise hell. We should know by now, through centuries of Russian history, that it's a country of great pride, and one that we don't want as an enemy under any cirumstances. It will never be conquered, and it always has the potential to create tremendous tension in the world.

That's what Bush should be offering tomorrow; done in such a way that Putin doesn't recognize it for what it really is. Let's see how smart Rove really is.

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