At George W. Bush’s first meeting with Vladimir Putin at the elegant Brdo Castle in Slovenia in June 2001, the US president broke the ice with a nice touch.
The relationship between the two countries was fraught with tension. Bush had repeatedly denounced Russia’s war in Chechnya and accused the Democrats of “going soft on Russia” during his election campaign in 2000. Putin, for his part, was fuming about Washington’s plan to deploy anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe and its open criticism of human rights abuses in Russia.
After a frosty exchange of greetings, the Russian leader was about to launch into formal policy discussions. Unexpectedly, the American president leaned towards him and asked about the cross Putin’s mother had given her son. The Russian president’s face lit up. Setting aside the documents, Putin recounted the story of the miraculous recovery of his mother’s cross.
It was a simple aluminium cross that Maria Ivanovna Shelomova gave to her son on his first trip outside the Soviet Union to Israel. She asked him to have the cross blessed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Putin dutifully did so. Years later, just as Putin was struggling with the most difficult spell of his career in 1996, calamity struck. One day, Putin and his family were in their lakeside dacha outside St Petersburg when the sauna burst into flames. Putin, naked from a bath, had to escape from a second-floor balcony using sheets as a rope.
He watched helplessly as the house burnt “like a candle” to the ground. All his belongings inside the dacha were destroyed. Yet, as the firefighters rummaged through the ruins, they found his mother’s cross in the ashes of the remnants. It was perfectly intact. Putin later called this a “revelation” and a sacred experience. Ever since, he has carried the cross wherever he goes. His luck also turned. A year after the fire, he was called to Moscow by the ailing president, Boris Yeltsin, who named him deputy chief of staff. Two years later, Putin became the premier.
Bush, a pious believer, listened to the story with great interest and the pair began chatting like old friends. When they emerged to meet the press two hours later, Russia and the US had settled few differences, but the two leaders had forged a personal relationship. Bush told the press: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul: a man deeply committed to his country.”
After the auspicious first meeting, Putin – already the first Russian leader since Lenin to speak a foreign language (he is fluent in German) – started taking lessons in English for an hour a day. He also studied US diplomacy and culture, and used his new knowledge to impress Bush when they met again. Putin later said he could be candid with Bush and hoped to use his personal ties to resolve the thorny issues between the two nations.
In the first two years of Bush’s presidency, their friendship flourished. Bush became Putin’s best friend among Western leaders. They met four times, once at Bush’s ranch in Texas. It was Putin’s first visit to the home of a foreign leader.
But the warm personal relationship between the two presidents led to little in terms of policy changes. To Putin’s dismay, he discovered that for a bilateral relationship as complex and intricate as the Russia-US one, personal friendship – even at the very top-level – did not count for much.
Bush could make little compromise over the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) deployment in Europe without affecting ties with Nato allies or upsetting his generals. After two years of careful cultivation of a new relationship with the United States, Putin received no concession over the ABM deployment. Bush informed him of the US’s final decision only a week before Washington made the public announcement. Putin was frustrated and upset by bold US moves in the Middle East and Central Asia. The unilateral decision by Washington to invade Iraq and its flirtation with Ukraine further increased the mistrust.
By the time Bush met Putin in Slovakia in January 2005, shortly after the American president had won a second term, they hardly saw eye to eye with one another anymore. Bush raised his concern about the lack of press freedom in Russia at the meeting. Putin’s reply was mocking. “Don’t lecture me about the free press – not after you fired that reporter,” he snapped, referring to the Killian documents controversy when CBS questioned Bush’s service record in the Air National Guard in a TV documentary. CBS later fired producer Mary Mapes after they could not authenticate the evidence. The incident remained a sour spot for the American president. Bush was so irritated that he later said he imagined “reaching over to slap the hell out of the interpreter”.
Putin’s two-year bromance with Bush was probably the only time he had warm ties with an American president. His relationship with Barack Obama has always been stormy. Now, as Donald Trump heads for the White House, many are predicting a new chapter between Russia and the US. The American president-elect is widely known for his affection for the Russian president, whom he has publicly praised as being “very smart” and “a good leader”. When asked on CBS’s Face the Nation programme about his relationship with Putin in 2015, Trump even jokingly said “we were stablemates”.
The feeling appears mutual. Putin sent Trump a letter last month wishing him the warmest Christmas and New Year greetings. “I hope that after you assume the position of President of the United States of America we will be able – by acting in a constructive and pragmatic matter – to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level,” Putin wrote.
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This may appear to bode well for future Russia-US ties. But if past experience offers any hints, such friendship is always fickle and precarious. The two powers have too many overlapping spheres of interests at a global level and too many stakeholders at play. Personal ties between two presidents may help to smooth things out, but this alone can hardly change the fundamentals.
Putin, after all, is a hard-nosed master of realpolitik and will never let personal friendship – no matter how real or strong – get in his way. He certainly prefers Trump over Hillary Clinton, whom the Russian president hates with a passion. But in the end, he will not budge an inch over anything against Russia’s interests.
Trump may flaunt a fawning letter from the Kremlin now and then. But coming to power on the back of a right-wing populist movement, he is going to put America’s interests above all. He has proved capable of great self-contradiction and is mercurial in temperament. The relationship between the two governments may improve initially, but whether in the long term it can take the heat as well as Putin’s cross is highly questionable. ■
Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations