Vladimir Putin, said Bill Clinton on CNN, is “highly intelligent,” a “highly motivated … man of strong views … capable of being a very strong and effective and straightforward leader.” It should have gone without saying, but did not, that he is also someone “we can do business with.”

We are clearly on the edge of a “close personal relationship.” A presidential summit can’t be far off. Maybe April or May, just as soon as Mr. Putin can get the “Acting” removed from his “Acting President” title.

President Clinton’s “close personal relationship” with Boris Yeltsin symbolized a policy toward Russia that seemed determined to see no flaw in this deeply flawed man. In the Yeltsin years the United States behaved as if Boris Yeltsin’s political position was essential to U. S. national interests. Yeltsin got a pass when his tanks shelled the parliament in October 1993, though his standing in Russia plummeted. He waged war in Chechnya and was likened to Lincoln. He impoverished the country, stiffed his creditors and was urged to “stay the course.”

Yet all the flattery and forbearance produced little in real cooperation. Russia meddles in the former Soviet states and peddles the technology of mass destruction to Iran and Iraq. Disarmament talks are stalled where they were a decade ago. Rhetorical attacks on America’s power and aspirations are daily exercises for Russian diplomats. The absence of a new Cold War seems more a product of Russian capabilities than of Russian intentions.

The gush and mush about Putin risks a re-run of this bad movie. Putin is an unknown quantity. The Kremlin interests that brought him to power are undemocratic, unsavory and unsentimental, and his conduct in office thus far is not reassuring. Maybe he will be more lovable down the road, but what we could use at this junction is less unction.