Although very few people in the world really know what Presidents George W Bush and Vladimir Putin talked about in their summit, leaks are beginning to trickle out.
I found this one from Time Magazine particularly amusing, largely because of the number of bloggers who should know better (Chrenkoff, Myopic Zeal, Christian Conservative, and Publius Pundit to name just a few) but who instead seem to be taking it as gospel:
George Bush knew Vladimir Putin would be defensive when Bush brought up the pace of democratic reform in Russia in their private meeting at the end of Bush’s four-day, three-city tour of Europe. But when Bush talked about the Kremlin’s crackdown on the media and explained that democracies require a free press, the Russian leader gave a rebuttal that left the President nonplussed. If the press was so free in the U.S., Putin asked, then why had those reporters at CBS lost their jobs? Bush was openmouthed. "Putin thought we’d fired Dan Rather," says a senior Administration official. "It was like something out of 1984."
Come on! Putin will have spent a lifetime studying, at the very least peripherally, the West; its culture, its politics and its customs. He simply cannot believe that the government just fires reporters when they feel the need. Those who imagine that someone who is smart enough to climb to the top in Russia cannot figure this out for himself (especially with the aid of the Russian intelligence services, and more importantly access to Google) are deluding themselves, and in for a nasty shock when they are confronted with the reality that Putin is an intelligent man, determined to hang on to power and run Russia in the way he sees fit. If you believe Putin is a fool, then he will manipulate you. You will never manipulate him.
Anyway, now that rant’s over and done, I’d like to point you in the direction of David Adesnik’s insightful commentary over at Oxblog.
David argues that when Bush hadn’t been taken in when he told reporters that Putin "means it" when he talks of Russia’s commitment to democracy. Instead, he was trying to publicly set an agenda without publicly humiliating Putin at the same time:
By itself, that last sentence is absurd. When Putin’s tells something to you and I, he is probably lying through his teeth. But Putin is smart enough to know that he can’t constantly lie to Bush and get away with it. He can lie to the Russian public and to the American public without consequences. But every gangster knows better than to f*** with the godfather.
Like Reagan, Bush has a very personal diplomatic style. Again like Reagan, Bush pretty much speaks his mind, both on the record and off. Thus, when Bush says that Putin made a serious commitment to democracy at a private meeting with the President of the United States of America, that is exactly what Bush means. He has put Putin on the record and expects him to live up to his word, the same way that Bush lives up to his.
There’s far more to David’s analysis, and I’d really recommend you read his entire post.
Trouble is, knowing about something doesn’t mean you fully understand it. Vladimir Putin knows about the western way of doing things, that doesn’t mean he necessarily commprehends in full the western way of doing things.
We make assumptions about the way others do things based on how our society does things. It’s the way we are. I can see where President Putin got it wrong. I can hope he learns better.
I keep asking myself, is Putin indeed as sophisticated as you bill him, Andy, or is he a much simpler mind, PolSci-wise? Remember that he didn’t as much climb the ladder to the top as he was propelled by sheer luck. The way he has manipulated the media has been relatively subtle — but was it Putin who’s been pulling the strings? — but the YUKOS story has, on the contrary, looked like a very crude job from the beginning.
On the other hand, it might be that Putin had this message in mind: when a reporter tells a lie, he gets fired. Rather was fired under the pressure of public opinion; Kiselev or Parfenov, under pressure from the Kremlin, albeit disguised as a legitimate private affair. Thus, according to Putin, there is always a mechanism — government or no government — that makes sure a(n opposition) reporter who resorts to unethical means gets the boot.
I guess, in a sense, I do talk up Putin’s sophistication, and it might give the impression that I think he is a super-suave political operator. Largely I do this in response to those who under-estimate his intelligence and ability because he from Russia and not from the ‘West’, rather like some automatically assume that a peasant is thick simply because he is a peasant.
I do think that he is *relatively* sophisticated politically and, although he was, as you say, many of the forces that propelled him into power were outside of his control, one could say the same of many leaders throughout the world, including George W Bush. The sophistication/skill/intelligence of politicians lies primarily in putting oneself in a position to ride waves of good fortune when they come along.
Having said all that, he certainly isn’t the brightest biscuit in the barrel. One only needs to look at his shambolic intervention in Ukraine, not to mention the entire Yukos affair, to tell that.