The Washington Post

The moment when Putin turned away from the West


When people try to comprehend the catastroph­e of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they often draw a straight line back to his apprentice­ship as a KGB spy, his nostalgia for a fallen Soviet Union and his rage at NATO enlargemen­t. And that may indeed be the way future historians read this tragic story.

But another, more complicate­d version emerges in some recently declassifi­ed documents from the George W. Bush administra­tion. Bush had maintained a surprising­ly close relationsh­ip with the Russian leader, centered on a counterter­rorism alliance. The United States was battling al- Qaeda at the time; Russia was fighting Chechen separatist­s. But Putin came to believe that America was an unreliable, hypocritic­al partner — and that belief would curdle into the open feud that has deepened, year by year.

This “alternativ­e history” doesn’t condone or excuse Putin’s horrific crimes in Ukraine. His invasion of his neighbor was the illegal, unjustifia­ble act of a ruthless authoritar­ian. But in assessing the roots of such a conflict, it’s useful to understand the mind of the adversary — and to see clearly the pathway to disaster.

So, here are some little-known facts: The RussianAme­rican counterter­rorism alliance ruptured after a Sept. 1, 2004, attack by Chechen separatist­s on a school in Beslan, in the Russian region of North Ossetia. When the Russian authoritie­s regained control on Sept. 3, 333 people were dead, including 186 children, plus 31 attackers. In the aftermath, Putin blamed the United States for encouragin­g the separatist­s by offering asylum to “moderate” Chechens and urging Russia to negotiate with them. A headline in Pravda argued: “How would Americans feel if Russia offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden?”

Russian overreacti­on contribute­d to the slaughter at Beslan. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2017 that Russia had used tanks, grenades and flamethrow­ers to crush the hostage-takers, adding to civilian casualties. Russia’s brutal campaign against the Chechens was a foretaste of what was to come in Syria in 2015 and now in Ukraine. But in 2004, Russia and the United States were partners in a “global war on terror.”

Three days after the September 2004 terrorist attack at Beslan, Putin delivered a blistering speech from the Kremlin voicing his indignatio­n at the West in language he hadn’t used before: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” And then, in an unmistakab­le reference to the United States, Putin added: “Some would like to tear from us a ‘juicy piece of pie.’ Others help them ... reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them.”

“We never got back on track” after the Beslan incident, argues Thomas Graham, who was Bush’s National Security Council senior director for Russia at the time. “Putin concluded — wrongly in the U.S. view — that the U.S. counterter­rorism campaign was just a smokescree­n to cover American geopolitic­al advance in Eurasia at Russia’s expense,” Graham wrote in an afterword to the Russia section of the new book “Hand- Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama,” a collection of declassifi­ed transition memos prepared for the incoming Obama administra­tion.

This view that Beslan marked a turning point is shared by many other senior officials from the Bush years. “Our relations with Russia were calm, even warm,” wrote Condoleezz­a Rice in her 2011 memoir, “No Higher Honor.” Rice, a Russian speaker, was Bush’s national security adviser in his first term and then secretary of state. She noted that Bush and Putin developed a “strategic dialogue group” and a “presidenti­al checklist” to address common problems.

From their first meeting, Rice wrote, Putin and Bush were “two men who enjoyed a certain degree of personal chemistry.” Bush expressed this in his now-chilling 2001 encomium: “I looked the man in the eye. . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.” But beyond Bush’s overenthus­iasm, there were real signs of partnershi­p, as one of the declassifi­ed documents explains.

“Not only was Putin the first world leader to reach out to President Bush following the September 11 terrorist attacks, but he was also broadly receptive to President Bush’s initiative­s, demonstrat­ing early support for the War on Terror and U.S. operations in Afghanista­n,” noted a January 2009 secret memo prepared by the Bush NSC’S Russia directorat­e.

To help the CIA organize its post-9/11 campaign against al- Qaeda in Afghanista­n, “Putin overruled his security people and said that Russia would not block U.S. efforts to find bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,” Graham told me. Russia also provided the United States with intelligen­ce from its network of agents inside Afghanista­n.

One vivid anecdote from that time: Rice recalled in her memoir that when CIA Director George J. Tenet said he needed supplies for Northern Alliance allies fighting the Taliban, she called Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister. Ivanov said his agents would find the Americans some donkeys that could traverse the narrow mountain paths.

Then came Beslan. Did Putin have any grounds for his claim afterward that America was aiding the Chechen separatist­s? According to a careful review of the evidence by the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, Putin was “partially correct.” The Belfer report noted that the United States in 2004 granted asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, who was foreign minister of a Chechen separatist government in exile. The Bush administra­tion initially opposed Akhmadov’s asylum request but then changed position.

Chechen separatism was a popular cause among some conservati­ves. Sen. John Mccain (R-ariz.) met with Akhmadov at least three times. The National Endowment for Democracy awarded him a federally funded fellowship. Chechen separatist­s also raised money in the United States to support their cause, Graham recalled.

Putin later made the extravagan­t claim that U.S. intelligen­ce agencies had aided the Chechen separatist­s. The Belfer Center report, again after careful review, found “no evidence of the U.S. government’s direct support for armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus.”

In late 2004, Putin’s anger at what he saw as the West’s machinatio­ns would increase when Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko won the presidency over the Kremlin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Russia’s power was slipping around its borders, and Putin was unable to reverse the disintegra­tion.

Though Putin has argued that NATO expansion was the reason he felt betrayed, Bush administra­tion officials say he didn’t express it at the time. “While displeased, Russia swallowed with little acrimony NATO’S admission of seven Central European states in 2004,” Graham writes.

From 2004 on, the movie begins to roll toward the nightmare scenes of today. In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Putin denounced the West. “NATO has put its front-line forces on our borders,” he said. “We have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?” In 2008, he told William J. Burns, then ambassador to Russia and now CIA director: “Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country?”

Putin’s turn away from the West may have been inevitable. The Russian leader is an authoritar­ian, and he wanted to protect Russian influence in the former Soviet space. But Graham poses an intriguing query in summarizin­g the classified record: “Did the United States and Europeans miss something fundamenta­l in the Russian situation and psyche at the time? Did they misread the situation and fail to craft an offer of cooperativ­e relations that adequately accounted for Russian interests and perspectiv­es?”

Regardless, a current U.S. official who follows Russia closely argues that “2004 was a turning point, there’s little doubt about it.” By late that year, U.S. intelligen­ce was gathering reports that Putin’s security chiefs were urging him to break decisively with Bush and adopt a more aggressive policy. And ultimately he did, with a vengeance.

Did the United States and Europeans miss something fundamenta­l in the Russian situation and psyche at the time?

 ?? Viktor Drachev/agence France-presse/getty Images ?? A woman cries in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 5, 2004.
Viktor Drachev/agence France-presse/getty Images A woman cries in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 5, 2004.
 ?? Oleg Nikishin/getty Images ?? People in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 3, 2004.
Oleg Nikishin/getty Images People in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 3, 2004.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States