All news

Waiting for the 45th: A look back on Putin’s relations with three US presidents

The most complex, even dramatic, relations the Russian president had with the man who will soon be leaving the White House
Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush
Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

MOSCOW, November 8. /TASS/. Over the years he represented Russia in the international scene Russian President Vladimir Putin had a chance to shake hands with three US leaders - two Democrats and one Republican. His contacts with the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, were the longest and most eventful. And the most complex, if not dramatic ones, were his contacts with the man who will soon leave the White House - Barack Obama.

As for the 42nd US President Bill Clinton, though most of his presidency was in the pre-Putin years, their contacts left a lasting imprint on bilateral relations.

Words of thanks to Clinton

Putin still has warm recollections of the brief period of interaction with Bill Clinton during his presidency. "I am grateful to him for certain moments that accompanied my entry into big politics. On several occasions he made certain gestures of courtesy and respect towards Russia and to me personally," Putin said in an interview.

 Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton Sergei Velichkin, Vladimir Rodionov/ITAR-TASS
Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton
© Sergei Velichkin, Vladimir Rodionov/ITAR-TASS

Putin’s last personal contacts with Bill Clinton date back to 2009-2010, when the former was Russia’s prime minister, and the latter had long become a private person. At the beginning of 2000 Putin, the then acting Russian head of state, and US President Bill Clinton exchanged several messages to agree that differences between Russia and the United States should not prevent the two nations from going ahead with bilateral cooperation.

In June 2000 the US leader arrived in Moscow on a visit. The two men discussed the situation in the Balkans and the North Caucasus and some other issues on the agenda of that time. Also, Putin took Clinton on a brief sight-seeing tour of the building of the Governing Senate (the highest judiciary and legislative office of Imperial Russia, currently housing the Kremlin presidential staff) inside Moscow’ Kremlin and invited the guest - an amateur saxophone enthusiast - to a jazz concert.

On several occasions Putin met with Clinton and talked with him by telephone in the last months of his second term of office. After the last such meeting in the middle of November 2000 - after the US presidential election but before the vote counting and recounting was over (that time the procedure lasted till the middle of December), Putin said that "Clinton during his terms of office accomplished a breakthrough in Russian-US relations." The Russian leader then shared the hope that "this relay baton will be passed on to a new US Administration, whoever may lead it."

Putin and Bush: heyday of relations

At first, everything proceeded precisely in this direction, although the Republican Party, whose candidate moved into the White House in January 2001, is traditionally regarded in Russia as a far tougher partner to do business with than the Democrats. However, Bush promptly established a positive dialog with Putin at their first personal meeting at an old castle in Ljubljana in June 2001. Bush then said that he "looked the man in the eye," and was able "to get a sense of his soul." He also said he found Putin to be "very straight-forward and trustworthy."

George W. Bush Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Bush family compound on Walker's Point in Kennebunkport, 2007 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
George W. Bush Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Bush family compound on Walker's Point in Kennebunkport, 2007
© AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Russian-US relations peaked in 2001-2002. Putin was the first world leader to have put through a phone call to Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to express sympathy and support. Two months later Putin paid a ten-day state visit to the US. Apart from a meeting in the White House George W. Bush also welcomed Putin at his Prairie Chapel ranch in Texas. And in Washington Putin was invited to attend a CIA briefing for the US president behind closed doors - something really unprecedented in the history of bilateral relations. As Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, said later, the briefing was a token of gratitude to the Russian President for his contribution to the counter-terrorist cause.

During Bush’s return visit to Moscow in May 2002 Russia and the United States signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and a joint declaration on new strategic relations between the two countries. And in the November of the same year Bush said that he regarded Putin as one of his closest friends.

But very soon a U-turn followed.

Dark clouds on the horizon

The United States and Britain went to war in Iraq without getting approval from the United Nations and, as it would turn out soon, on the basis of trumped-up evidence (commonly remembered as the "Powell test tube"). Russia and a number of Washington’s NATO allies (like France and Germany) were firmly against. Then there followed a string of "color revolutions" and NATO’s eastward expansion (three former Soviet republics - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined the alliance in 2004). The controversy over the 1972 anti-ballistic missile defense treaty turned for the worse and there emerged other points of tensions in bilateral relations.

In a situation like this Bush was more than once reproached for what he had said about Putin’s eyes and soul. To little avail, though. Against all odds the two leaders’ personal relations never developed a downhill slide. Only many years later Bush would make somewhat more critical remarks about Putin than those uttered during his presidency. At that time, though, for instance in 2007, after the well-remembered Munich speech, in which Putin strongly criticized the mono-polar world system Bush again welcomed the Russian president, who had arrived in the United States on a visit, at the Bush family’s compound on Walker’s Point, Maine, where in the company of Bush Sr. they made a boating and fishing trip.

All in all, before his second presidential term expired in May 2008, Putin had met with Bush 28 times. Their last meeting in Sochi in April produced a Strategic Framework Declaration, reflecting both positive achievements in Russian-US relations and bilateral disagreements.

Months later Putin, already holding the post of Russia’s prime minister, and Bush, who was in the last months of his presidency, met again at the opening of the Beijing Olympics on August 8, 2008, but hardly had the time to talk sports. All other themes drowned in the roar of Georgia’s tanks and multiple rocket launchers attacking South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers. Putin then said he was satisfied with Bush’s reply "nobody wanted this war," although further on both came up with different interpretations of that dialog.

On the eve of Bush’s last day in office in January 2009 the two men exchanged warm words by telephone. Putin would later call Bush a decent man and a good friend, adding that good-natured relations with him helped find a way out of the most acute and conflict-prone situations.

Although many opinions varied, US-Russian relations never saw a hopeless crisis. The 2008 election of a Democratic president, who was promptly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, raised the hope the dark clouds on the horizon of bilateral relations would vanish without a trace. Obama was most advantageously looking next to his main rival in the 2008 election, Republican John McCain, notorious for his anti-Russian sentiment.

Obama: hopes and realities

Foreign policy is the president’s realm of responsibility. In those years Dmitry Medvedev was in charge of foreign policy matters in Russia. However, Putin met with Obama during the US leader’s first visit to Russia in July 2009. Putin received the guest at his countryside residence Novo-Ogaryovo and treated him to smoked beluga sturgeon, pancakes, cranberry marmalade, black caviar-stuffed eggs, quail ravioli and cherry jelly pudding and ice-cream for desert. Also, Putin and Obama had tea, served on an open veranda. On the table there were such tea culture musts as bagels, honey-cakes and donuts. The hot water came from the traditional large Russian coal-fueled samovar pot (literally, self-boiler). A jack-boot, used as bellows for promptly rekindling the device to keep the water hot enough, was the final touch that added to the ethnic flavor this Russian tea ceremony.

"With your name we associate the hope for the development of bilateral relations," Putin told Obama in the first minutes of their meeting, which lasted longer than expected.

Sadly, neither these hopes nor the red-colored Reset Button (with a telling word mispick literally meaning "overload" or "overcharge" in Russian translation) failed to prevent bilateral relations from getting stalled. The missile defense plans and NATO’s expansion remained in place and pretty soon new problems emerged in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

In the capacity of Russia’s President Putin for the first time met with Obama in June 2012, when the already long list of sensitive issues had been complemented by the Magnitsky Act. Next to the global issues it might seem a sheer trifle, but it is such trifles that illustrate best the real climate in bilateral relations.

Western media said the Putin-Obama meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013 was "chilly." It will be remembered mostly for the picture of thoughtful Putin and Obama - both awkwardly looking, as if there is nothing to say to each other - made during the protocol part of their meeting against the backdrop of an idyllic green landscape.

After the very far-fetched Edward Snowden affair, when Russia granted asylum to a former US secret service employee, Obama canceled his visit to Moscow, scheduled for September 2013, though he attended the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Also, Obama was absent from the opening of the winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014.

Then there erupted the crisis in Ukraine. Russian-US relations plummeted to a record low and it might have seemed that it was not Obama, but McCain that had emerged the winner in 2008 to achieve re-election four years later.

At a record-low

Even amid sanctions and the retaliatory food embargo Russian-US contacts at the presidential level continued, but they were focused mostly on two themes - Ukraine and Syria, particularly so with the beginning of Russia’s air operation in that country in 2015. Putin believes that the United States is just unprepared to agree to compromises in world politics. It would like to always "rule the roost," so the anti-Russian sanctions stem from the Americans’ desire to contain Russia. In that connection the Russian leader recalled that his predecessor Boris Yeltsin instantly got into hot water in relations with the West when he took a firm stance on Yugoslavia in 1999. It was then that relations with the United States developed a turn for the worse.

"Had it not been for (the problem of) Ukraine, they would’ve thought up something else," Putin said with certainty.

But even in this type of situation the Russian leader has remained invariably polite and reserved in everything he said about his US counterpart, whom he described as a decent and brave man.

The latest meeting of the Russian and US leaders took place on the sidelines of the 20G summit in China last September. Obama is scheduled to leave office in January. Theoretically he may meet with Putin once again at the APEC summit in Peru later this month, but by that time a new US president will have been elected and in accordance with the US political tradition the outgoing one will begin to be regarded as a "lame duck."

At the end of the Putin-Obama meeting in September the accompanying government ministers and aides stepped out and the two men had a one-on-one talk for a while. There were no beluga sandwiches, pancakes, donuts or samovars on the table this time. No aide brought in something like the Reset Button, albeit with a misprint. Putin later said that Obama and he had managed to get as far as the "understanding of each other," but it is more than obvious that there is no time left for anyone to rewrite this page of history in Russian-US relations.

The next page still remains blank, whatever drafts may be written today. It takes two to tango. Whether the partners will be stepping on each other’s feet will now largely depend on what foreign policy tune a future US president will prefer. Russia’s stance, as Putin has said more than once, will remain unchanged. Moscow keeps the door widely open for a dialog with any US leader.