Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy international schedule in mid-October, meeting in Moscow with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Brazilian Vice-President Jose Alenkar, followed by a full-scale official visit to China, and then staying for several days in Central Asia with a dense program of bilateral and multilateral meetings. During a Dushanbe press conference on October 18, he expressed his deep conviction that international terrorists in Iraq sought to inflict damage not so much on coalition forces, but more on President George W. Bush’s standing, in order to prevent his re-election (Lenta.ru, October 18).
The statement was hardly a carefully prepared message and appeared rather to be an unscheduled brainstorm, after too many hours spent in unbearably boring low-content meetings (Kommersant, October 19). For Kremlin-watchers, however, it is exactly these rare extemporaneous remarks that provide a glimpse into the real thinking and feelings inside the hermetically sealed presidential administration. This comment gives a bit of insight on two intersecting but essentially separate issues: the U.S. presidential elections and the war against terrorism.
Putin’s preferences on the first issue are no state secret: he roots for George W. Bush and counts on his victory, adding only minimalist politically correct cover, like “I do not want to spoil relations with any of the candidates.” He probably thinks, typically miscalculating the impact of his public statements, he can contribute to the success of Bush’s campaign. In this context, the Dushanbe “signal” is a follow-up to the Astana “signal” of June 18, when he mentioned the warnings from Moscow to Washington concerning Saddam Hussein, who allegedly had been planning terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. That was intended to be a helping hand after the 9/11 Commission concluded there was no evidence confirming ties between the Saddam regime and al-Qaeda (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 21). The U.S. State Department had to issue some awkward denials afterwards, and would not find it much easier to comment upon Putin’s remarks this time around. It was probably a sheer coincidence that both times Putin tried to give Bush a bit of a help while speaking in Central Asia (and both times on the 18th), but the very visible pro-Bush bias on Russian state-run TV channels has certainly not happened by chance (Ekho Moskvy, October 9). A peculiar, minor detail here was the censorship of the coverage of the first round of the Bush-Kerry debates, when their argument about the decline of democracy in Russia was unceremoniously cut out (Vremya novosti, October 4).
The grounds for this clear preference are both personal and political. Putin has reasons to believe that he has developed a near perfect rapport with Bush and has doubts about the tenor of relations with the much more sophisticated John Kerry. Currently, both presidents are equally eager to exploit the theme of struggle against terrorism for all sorts of internal and external purposes, but a democratic administration in the United States might be more attentive to other challenges and to the opinions of its Western allies. Moscow, therefore, foresees an erosion of the counter-terrorist partnership and a lack of understanding of its style of managing democracy from a Kerry White House. Interestingly, these Kremlin preferences correspond perfectly with the choices in the traditionally discordant Russian diaspora in the United States, which is strongly inclined towards Bush (Moskovskie novosti, October 15).
As for interpreting Putin’s statement in the context of the war against terrorism, the key insight here is the interpretation of the enemy’s aims. Here, Putin was not speaking about Bush’s electoral prospects or, for that matter, about the impact of the Madrid terrorist attack on the parliamentary elections in Spain; he was speaking about himself. Back in September 1999, terrorism was the launching pad for Putin’s jump into the Kremlin, but five years later is has become a grave threat for his presidency. Reflecting on the Beslan tragedy, Putin sees not the plain horror of hundreds of dead children (he was furious at Izvestiya for printing the graphic images), he sees the instant destruction of two key notions of his rule: “stability” and “control.” The rationale of his ‘”executive vertical,” the efficiency of his “power structures,” the quality of his own leadership, everything was put in doubt. The sky-high figures of his ratings are not convincing anymore, he is afraid that his inability to meet this challenge has become clear to all; hence perhaps his odd reference to “every objective observer.”
Voting for Kerry and questioning Putin’s leadership are therefore equally irresponsible means of granting terrorists their victory. The best reaction to this twisted worldview in the Russian media was perhaps the joke about deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov instructing Putin to announce that the aim of international terrorism was to prevent Bush’s re-election to a second term, in order to secure a reciprocal statement from Bush that the aim of international terrorism was to prevent Putin’s re-election to a third term (Vladimir.vladimirovich.ru, October 18).