Putin: From U.S. Ally to Global Tyrant

George Bush stood with his hand on Vladimir Putin's shoulder. It was November 2001, and the two leaders had just enjoyed Texas steaks personally barbecued by Bush at his family ranch, before heading to Crawford High School to address an audience of students. "It's my honor to welcome a new style of leader," Bush said as he introduced the Russian president. "A reformer, a man who loves his country as much as I love mine." Putin had been the first foreign leader to call in the hours after 9/11 to offer support in the War on Terror, recalled Bush. "When I was in high school, Russia was an enemy," he continued. "Now Russia is a friend." Putin, responding with his trademark shy smile, praised Bush's recent victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan and offered his "congratulations to those who have been liberated by [the U.S.] armed forces, and their relatives."

It is hard to imagine such happy scenes today—let alone Putin's congratulating Iraqis on their "liberation." True, Putin still enjoys Bush-family hospitality, dining last month on lobsters at Bush's parents' home in Kennebunkport, Maine. But though his shy smile remains the same, behind it is a very changed man. The new Putin, in the words of his adviser Gen. Gennady Troshev, former commander of the Russian Army in Chechnya, is "a different person—tough, stern, harsh with those who dare to doubt his orders."

And he doesn't mince words. In Munich last February, Putin railed against America the "hyperpower" that flouted international law. Later, he compared Washington's hegemony to the Third Reich's and threatened to redirect Russian nukes at Europe. At Crawford, Bush praised Putin as someone "who is going to [help] make the world more peaceful by working closely with the United States." Instead, Putin is fast becoming the self-styled architect of an "alternative pole of power" to the United States. Abroad, he has forged alliances with pariah states. At home, he has become something very close to an autocrat, creating puppet opposition parties, cracking down on dissidents and strangling media freedom.

What changed? How did Putin go from Bush's friend and ally to being an assertive nationalist, befriending and arming America's enemies? To hear the Russians tell it, it's the United States's fault. Putin's trust was betrayed by Washington, says Georgy Arbatov, former head of the Duma's Defense Committee. First, the United States ignored Russian objections to invading Iraq, then it encroached on Russia's traditional sphere of influence in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Ukraine. "Instead of respecting Russia's views, the West supported Putin's opponents," argues Arbatov. "Putin became deeply disappointed, and bitter." The real turning point came when Washington-backed "color" revolutions toppled Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-04.

Suddenly, the enemy was at the gate, installing pro-Western governments in Russia's backyard. "Putin's world tilted on its axis," says Kremlin-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute of National Strategy. "It was a profound shock; Putin's circle became convinced that they could be the next regime to fall." Putin had begun reining in Russia's independent media as soon as he came to power, but in the color revolutions' aftermath, the Kremlin immediately ordered a far tougher crackdown on any groups that could foment regime change. Loyal businessmen and state companies such as Gazprom were encouraged by the Kremlin to buy up Russia's remaining dissident media, and strict controls were brought in on broadcasters' editorial line. Nongovernmental organizations were banned from accepting foreign funding, forcing dozens to close. Most sinister of all, new laws were passed criminalizing "extremism"—defined as "defaming the state"—as well as allowing Russian spooks to covertly assassinate "enemies" abroad.

Moscow also began a root-and-branch rethink of Russia's relationship to the United States. "Putin's illusions about America were shattered," says political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov, a regular Kremlin adviser, recalling the policy review following the color revolutions. "No matter how much Russia supported the U.S., [Washington] still retained the same, essentially hostile, attitude." Since then, fears of Western encirclement have only increased as NATO makes overtures to Georgia and Ukraine and plans to station antimissile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Putin's response to these threats has been radical: he wants no less than "to change the rules of the world," says Sergei Karaganov, a foreign-policy adviser to the Kremlin. "The world should be ready to deal with a strong Russia." In practice, Putin means not only to restore Russia's lost might, but also to make Russia the principal counterbalance to U.S. power on the world stage. In a 2005 speech, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," and fondly recalled the old "bipolar" world where two superpowers checked each other's ambitions.

Luckily for Putin, the fortunes of the world economy are behind him. Sky-high energy prices have boosted Russia's economy by 40 percent in five years.

A large chunk of the cash has gone into rebuilding the beleaguered Russian Army. Putin has pledged the military $189 billion over five years, commissioning a new generation of ICBMs specifically designed to evade a U.S. missile defense shield and ordering up six new carrier battle groups, which—if they are actually built according to plan—will make the Russian Navy even mightier than its Soviet predecessor within 20 years.

More worrying for Washington, Putin has taken advantage of the surge in anti-Americanism that followed the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin has made friends with many of the world's malcontents, selling arms and missile systems to Venezuela, Syria and Iran, and offering nuclear reactors to Burma and Saudi Arabia. Before his visit to Kennebunkport last month, Putin hosted Bush-baiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Moscow, where they signed a $3 billion arms deal. In February Putin toured the Middle East, scorning American efforts to democratize the region and making a play for the loyalty of U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. "Putin is a Soviet politician with a Soviet mind-set," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist at Russia's Academy of Sciences. "Like the Soviets, he sees the world in terms of opposing camps. His plan is to march around the world with an anti-American flag in his hands."

Does all this mean that Putin wants to start a new cold war? Not necessarily. Rather, says former deputy prime minister Irina Khakamada, Putin desperately wants to be treated as Bush's equal. "When I spoke to Putin about relations with the U.S., his eyes lit up," recalls Khakamada. "It's a very personal thing for him. He wants to prove that America should not treat us like simpletons."

Equality, to Putin, means no more patronizing lectures from the West on Russia's history—or its dismal human-rights record. Russia, he believes, has nothing to be ashamed of. As he told a group of visiting teachers last month, foreigners "must not be allowed to impose a feeling of guilt on us—after all, we did not use nuclear weapons against a civilian population [like the United States in Nagasaki]." Equality means the right to squash Russia's enemies as fiercely as America has attacked its own—witness the recent liquidation by Russian assassins of former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev who had been hiding out in Qatar. But above all, equality means respecting the Kremlin's voice. "It's about drawing a line in the sand," says a senior Western diplomat in Moscow not authorized to speak on the record. "It's about saying, 'We're back, you can't push us around anymore'."

At base, then, the new Putin wants respect—and to stake out a Russian sphere of influence in which the West won't interfere, even if Moscow bullies its neighbors (as it did with Georgia last November over a spying row) or fixes their elections (as in Ukraine in 2004). For the time being, there's precious little the United States can do to check Russia's new imperial mood, since it needs Putin's continued support on the U.N. Security Council for sanctions on Iran.

Fortunately, Putin's bullishness, for all its rhetorical flourish, doesn't necessarily have to lead to serious confrontation. Putin's offer to Bush at last month's G8 summit in Germany to make the Gabala radar listening station in Azerbaijan part of an alternative missile shield (obviating, Putin hopes, the proposed outposts in Poland and the Czech Republic) was an important olive branch. So was Putin's assurance at Kennebunkport that he shared "many of America's concerns" about Iran's nuclear program. Putin, perhaps, is conscious that luck won't hold forever—and that his imperial dreams are underpinned by little more than a freak high in the world's energy markets. Europe, for its part, is seeking alternative energy supplies, specifically to reduce its strategic reliance on Russia. And the U.S. will eventually extract itself from the quagmire in Iraq. In time Putin, or more likely his hand-picked successor, will come to see that true greatness means more than just saying "nyet" to the West.