Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 33

President Bill Clinton appeared to jump on Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s election bandwagon this week, saying in an on-line interview with CNN that the Russian leader is a man the United States “can do business with.” Clinton also described Putin as “highly intelligent,” “highly motivated” and a man of “strong views.” Clinton allowed that the U.S. administration is not in agreement with Putin on every issue, but nevertheless asserted that “what I have seen of him so far indicates to me that he’s capable of being a very strong and effective and straightforward leader.” The U.S. president also spoke of his hope that Russia and the United States could move forward diplomatically following the Russian elections and that the two countries might make further progress in arms control negotiations (Reuters, AP, February 14-15).

Not surprisingly, the Russian government expressed its delight yesterday over Clinton’s “constructive statements,” though it focused its attention not on Clinton’s praise for Putin personally but on his call for improved bilateral relations. A Foreign Ministry statement underscored that the “Russian leadership shares the desire… to intensify bilateral dialogue, primarily in the spheres of security and disarmament, and to overcome the trend there for a dangerous impasse. In addition, the statement appeared to use comments made by Clinton regarding the need to battle international terrorism as an endorsement of sorts for the Kremlin’s war in the Caucasus. “We also note confirmation from the U.S. leadership of the importance of decisive steps taken against international terrorism,” the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said. In his on-line remarks Clinton had said that Chechen rebels bore some of the responsibility for five months of conflict with Russia (Reuters, Russian agencies, February 15).

Putin is right now the prohibitive favorite to win Russia’s March 26 presidential vote. But an election is nevertheless still to be held, and the timing of Clinton’s remarks–which come just as the election campaign is getting underway in earnest–sound in that context like an American endorsement of the former KGB colonel. Clinton’s public praise for Putin, moreover, appears to mark the end of a half-hearted and apparently brief effort by the administration to distance itself a bit from the Russian leader. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 8, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had just returned from Moscow, adopted a more even-handed tone in describing Putin than she had done previously. Albright told lawmakers that Putin is a “mixed bag” who appears to be “in denial” on some issues, including the war in Chechnya (AP, February 8).

In so readily and so publicly embracing Putin, the Clinton administration (like political leaders in Europe) appears to be in danger of recreating the same sort of personalized–and potentially dysfunctional–relationship that it had with former President Boris Yeltsin. But there were at least powerful historical reasons for the privileged ties that developed between the Russian and U.S. chief executives in the early 1990s. Yeltsin was, after all, Russia’s first democratically elected leader and the man most responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For much of the decade he also wielded tremendous political power and could at least reasonably be portrayed as a bulwark against the return of communism.

Putin possesses none of these virtues. He remains an unknown quantity, a man whose rise to power has been choreographed by powerful economic and political interests though the conduct of a cruel and barbaric war in the Caucasus. Nor does his performance as president thus far, not to mention his background as a career KGB intelligence operative, provide much reason to believe that he will emerge as a reliable defender of the freedoms necessary for Russia’s democratic development. Western leaders are, for obvious reasons, anxious to mend fences with Moscow after a period of intense acrimony. But it is not clear that an uncritical embrace of Putin will further that goal in any constructive form.