Successive US presidents have struggled to get the measure of Vladimir Putin but now that Brussels and Berlin have joined the fray with such resolve, it’s a different story, writes Nick Bryant.
It is often tempting to look upon Vladimir Putin as the millennium bug in a human and deadly form.
The Russian president rose to power on 31 December 1999, as the world held its breath that computers would go into meltdown when the clock struck midnight, unable to process the change from 1999 to 2000.
In the 20 years since, Putin has been trying to engineer a different kind of global system malfunction, the destruction of the liberal international order. The former KGB spymaster wanted to turn back the clock: to revive Russia’s tsarist greatness and to restore the might and menace of the Soviet Union prior to its break-up in 1991.
This Russian revanchist has become the most disruptive international leader of the 21st Century, the mastermind behind so much misery from Chechnya to Crimea, from Syria to the cathedral city of Salisbury. He has sought – successfully at times – to redraw the map of Europe.
He has tried – successfully at times – to immobilise the United Nations. He has been determined – successfully at times – to weaken America, and hasten its division and decline.
Putin came to power at a moment of western hubris. The United States was the sole superpower in a unipolar world. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, proclaiming the triumph of liberal democracy, was widely accepted.
Some economists even peddled the theory that recessions would be no more, partly because of the productivity gains of the new digital economy. It was also thought that globalisation, and the interdependence it wrought, would stop major economic powers fighting wars. The same utopianism attached itself to the internet, which was seen overwhelmingly as a force for global good.
In the early days especially, the same misplaced optimism and wishful thinking coloured the west’s approach to Putin – a figure, it is now obvious, who was trying to buck history and thwart democratisation, however many lives were lost in the process.
Successive US presidents have played into his hands. Bill Clinton, the occupant of the White House when Putin came to power, handed this ultra-nationalist a popular grievance by pushing for the expansion of Nato right up to Russia’s borders. As George F Kennan, the famed architect of America’s Cold War strategy of containment, warned at the time: “Expanding Nato would be the most fateful error of America policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”
George W Bush completely misjudged his Russian counterpart. “I looked the man in the eye,” Bush famously said after their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001. “I found him very straightforward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Bush mistakenly thought he could mount a charm offensive with Putin, and gently cajole him further down the democratic path.
But even though Bush visited Russia more than any other country – including, as a personal favour, two trips in 2002 to Putin’s home city, St Petersburg – the Russian leader was already displaying dangerously despotic tendencies.
In 2008, Bush’s final year as president, Putin invaded Georgia – what he called a “peace enforcement operation”. The Kremlin argued then – and has continued to argue ever since – that it was hypocritical for Washington to complain about this violation of international law after Bush had invaded Iraq.
Barack Obama sought to reframe US-Russian relations. His first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, even handed her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov a mock reset button (which was mistakenly labelled with the Russian word for “overloaded”). But Putin knew that America, after its long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no longer wanted to police the world.
When Obama refused in 2013 to enforce his red-line warning against Bashar al-Assad when the Syrian dictator used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin saw a green light. By helping Assad carry out his murderous war, he extended Moscow’s sphere of influence in the Middle East when the United States wanted to extract itself from the region. The following year, he annexed Crimea, and established a foothold in eastern Ukraine.
Despite being told by Obama to “cut it out,” Putin even sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the hope that Hillary Clinton, a long-time nemesis, would be defeated and that Donald Trump, a long-time fan boy, would win.
The New York property tycoon made no secret of his admiration for Putin, a sycophantic approach that seems to have further emboldened the Russian president. Much to Moscow’s delight, Trump publicly criticised Nato, weakened the US post-war alliance system and became such a polarising figure that he left America more politically divided than at any time since the Civil War.