Putin has bested them all: How has the Russian leader gotten the better of Clinton, Bush and Obama?

Watching Trump beat his chest about how he'd force Putin to his will is a reminder that Putin's had his way with us

Published November 25, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Charles Rex Arbogast/Joshua Roberts/Andrew Harnik/Alan Diaz)
(AP/Reuters/Charles Rex Arbogast/Joshua Roberts/Andrew Harnik/Alan Diaz)

Aug. 9, 1999, was an eventful day for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. In the morning President Boris Yeltsin appointed him deputy prime minister and named him acting prime minister a few hours later. In the afternoon, Yeltsin let it be known that he had selected the come-from-nowhere former intelligence agent to succeed him. By sundown Putin, then 47, announced that he would, indeed, stand for the presidency.

Putin has ever since rotated between the presidency and the premier’s office. That makes 16 years at the pinnacle of power in the Russian Federation. It makes 16 years trying to clean up the tragic, god-awful mess the ever-inebriated Yeltsin had made of post-Soviet Russia. And it makes three American presidencies: Bill Clinton in his final years, George W. Bush and now President Obama have all tried to build a relationship with a man as resolute in his determination to retrieve Russia as Yeltsin was craven in his desire to please the Americans at any cost.

Two things stand out, both remarkable, as one reflects back on this span of years.

One, none of the above-named presidents has succeeded in working well with Putin. Each attempt to structure a relationship, which amounts to restructuring the inherited relationship, has ended more or less in tears. Clinton and Bush II left office crestfallen, to use an old word—disappointed that they could not thread the needle. Obama awaits his turn.

Two, Americans have traveled a long distance in their attitudes toward Putin. When he first took office the common expectation was that he was legitimately a democrat and would do the right thing. Now, 16 years on, we have made of him a Beelzebub who cannot, by definition, ever do the right thing. Putinophobia is prevalent. Roughly speaking, this transformation follows the attitudes of our chief executives and the policy cliques around them: If they come to dislike Putin, our media direct us to dislike Putin, and by and large we oblige.

We now have a considerable catalog of White House postures and assessments available to us. To peruse it briefly:

Bill Clinton, March 2000: “Putin has expressed a genuine commitment to economic reform.”

Three months later Clinton refined the thought: "President Yeltsin led Russia to freedom. Under President Putin, Russia has a chance to build prosperity and strength while safeguarding the rule of law.”

A year after this last remark, Bush II returned from his first state visit to the Kremlin and delivered his famously stupid account of his encounter: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

GWB in the spring of 2002: “In 1968, America and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies. Today, America and Russia are friends.” I am not sure why our George singled out 1968, but this remark followed the Sept. 11 attacks by eight months. Putin had been the first to telephone the Bush White House to offer any assistance Russia could provide as the U.S. responded.

Bush II five years later: “Do I trust him? Yes, I trust him. Do I like everything he says? No. And I suspect he doesn’t like everything I say. But we’re able to say it in a way that shows mutual respect.”

On to our incumbent.

“I’ve said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there,” Obama said in March 2009. “Russia needs to understand our unflagging commitment to the independence and security of countries like Poland or the Czech Republic. On the other hand, we have areas of common concern.”

“I don’t have a bad relationship with Putin,” Obama said a few months later, by which time things had gone south and the famous reboot already looked like a dud. “He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is that when we’re in conversation together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”

September 2013: “This is not a Cold War,” Obama asserts. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia…. I don’t think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do.”

Five months after that last comment, Obama’s State Department helped turn prolonged street demonstrations in Kiev into an armed coup against Ukraine’s elected president.

And here we are. No less a political figure than Hillary Clinton has Putin down as Hitler. The Obama White House cannot do enough to undermine that “prosperity and strength” Bill Clinton encouraged 15 years ago.

Among the Republican presidential aspirants, it is a dog’s dinner. Per usual, the running theme is who can talk the toughest talk.

“I wouldn't talk to [Putin] at all,” Carly Fiorina declared during the second GOP debate, in September. Marco Rubio on the same occasion: “Putin is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East.”

Rand Paul countered with the only sensible comment of the evening: “We do need to be engaged with Russia, [and] to be engaged means to continue to talk," he said. “What if Reagan hadn’t talked to the Soviet Union?”

Drawing a line under all this in the place he always prefers, Donald Trump arrived with: “I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin.”


To unpack a decade and a half of presidential commentary about Russia’s leader is an education—providing, of course, one does this with at least a modest degree of detachment. It reveals certain things about Putin, for sure. But one learns as much, if not more, about America’s leadership. What makes Putin so hot a potato to handle? Assigning percentages is never very exact in these kind of cases, but I would say offhandedly it is a third or so Putin’s problem and the rest is ours.

Study the above digest of remarks, and you should come up with four fairly distinct periods, one for each president and one for those now vying to be next in the White House.

The theme during the Bill Clinton years was continuity, and to a point this was a natural expectation. Yeltsin had chosen Putin, and the latter was facing forward, not back. Recall this? Anyone who doesn’t regret the end of the Soviet Union has no heart, Putin said around this time. Anyone who thinks you can re-create the Soviet Union has no brain.

During Bush II’s two terms, the theme was drift—the theme of no theme. GWB simply was not up to a coherent policy; platitudes and faux-profundities were his limit. Were he and his people better read, they might have dressed up their inadequacy with some variant of Churchill’s famous mot—Russia being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In fact, the New York Times hauled this chestnut out for Bush late in his second term, explaining that Russia, in Churchill’s day as in ours, was “an inscrutable and menacing land that plays by its own rules, usually to the detriment of those who choose more open regulations.”

Already one sees trouble on the way. The Times piece is an artifact now. The curious can read it here.

With their reset that did not reset anything, Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, must be credited for trying to bring some seriousness back into the conversation with Russia. They simply failed to understand 1) the bull they proposed taking by the horns and 2) the utter unseriousness of the American project.

Reread the last of Bush II’s quotations above. At least he had the virtue of recognizing that Russians were Russian and would stay that way. Obama and Hillary suffer the more egregious righteousness characteristic of the liberal interventionists, the Williams-Sonoma set: A reset in relations with Russia meant one more, especially earnest try at imposing the good-for-everybody neoliberal order.

They adhere to Francis Fukuyama’s delusional thesis, to put the point another way: We are history’s last and highest achievement. It is only natural, a matter of human destiny, that everyone ought to conform with enthusiasm. In my view, the true-believing aspect of this sophomoric conceit is why Obama’s bitterness toward Putin is more acute than that of his predecessors in the White House—and why Hillary, if elected, can be relied upon to enact a Russia policy very possibly as pugilistic as Reagan’s during the late-Cold War years.

In the fourth and final period and final period of our ever-changing idea of “Putin,” who gets quotation marks at this point, is defined by our presidential aspirants. Apart from Hillary Clinton, we are back in Bush II-style incoherence. Nobody except Clinton actually has a policy, and Clinton’s is retrograde.

To stay with the incumbent, it would be wrong to single out the Obama administration’s mistakes, for one cannot neglect the two decades of history that preceded them. Stephen Cohen, the noted Russianist, lays this story out very plainly in “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia,” his 2001 book. In brief, the Americans so favored Yeltsin because he opened the door to a rapacious orgy of deregulation, privatization, asset-stripping and thievery. As is now generally accepted, several million Russians died (malnutrition, exposure, disease, alcohol poisoning) in the Soviet Union’s transition to the Russian Federation. The Soviet middle class—yes, there was one and it was large—was all but destroyed, an oligarchy having commandeered seven decades of accumulated national wealth.

Yeltsin set the bar, in short. A Russian president Americans liked was one who let the nation’s transformation into the neoliberal order proceed, under foreign direction, no matter the economic, social or altogether human costs. By 1994 Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-born poet exiled to New York, would complain in an open letter to Václav Havel that triumphant America expects all the Indians to commence imitation of the cowboys.

Crunching too much history into too few words, a Russian president Americans dislike is one who would blow out the candles and declare the party over. This is Putin—the president and his sin. His project is to rebuild Russian society after the debacle of the Yeltsin period, regenerate the decimated middle class and rein in the oligarchic crooks American leaders and media glorify as capitalist heroes.

As Putinophobes forever insert into any conversation, Putin’s Russia has many problems and problematic policies. These are as real as they can get, let there be no doubt. Having said this severally in this space, I will say it once more and leave it: Russia’s problems are the problems of Russians, just as America’s belong to Americans. People must also own the process of resolving their problems, for there is much benefit to derive from getting it done.


“They imagined him to be something he was not or assumed they could manage a man who refuses to be managed.”

That is how a think piece last year in the New York Times, which is here, described the core mistake our president and his two predecessors made in trying to do business with Vladimir Putin. The first half of the sentence presents no problem at all. American leaders are unable to see straight when looking toward the Kremlin. One of our many Cold War scars.

Look at the second part. Do I have to explain the very fundamental problem implicit in those last 11 words? “Assumed they could manage a man who refused to be managed?” “Presumed” is the word the reporter flubbed. One doubts he had any idea of how much he revealed as he wrote, which was surely in a state of pure unconsciousness.

This gets us straight to the essential question. Why are our presidents and all those who propose to be one unable to handle their Russian counterpart? What is it about this man that leaves American leaders and the policy cliques so often saying and doing foolish things and more or less all of the time tied up in knots?

One has to turn the relationship around, like a prism, to arrive at a fulsome answer. There is an American side, and then a Russian side.

Among the American presidents whose terms coincide with Putin’s, they can speak no straighter than they can see, so far as one can make out. Can they say, “We betrayed our promise to Gorbachev. We intend to bring NATO up to your western flank because our ultimate aim is not less than ‘regime change’ in Moscow?” Or, “We admit you began plans to reclaim Crimea the very morning we helped topple the elected government in Kiev, so propping open the door to a NATO presence in the Black Sea?” Or, “We liked the free-for-all of the Yeltsin years and wait now for a leader more pliant than you?”

Of course not times three. American presidents are thus stuck in an artificial vocabulary that is shapeless because it has little relation to reality. It is acceptable to many Americans, as the extent of our Putinophobia illustrates, but it must make a plain conversation with a foreign leader difficult on the way to impossible. Our political language is too encrusted with mythologies as to our purpose, to put the point another way.

Dissembling is the word I am looking for. American presidents must dissemble in the face of their Russian counterpart. Fine in the case of Yeltsin, an accomplished dissembler abjectly eager to win Americans’ approval. Not fine with a president who is “very smart,” “brutally blunt” and who “keeps his word,” as Bill Clinton described Putin on an assortment of occasions.

As Clinton’s phrases suggest, Putin is not encumbered in the way of our presidents and presidential hopefuls. He has a grasp of the world as it is and the power relations in it and can speak of these plainly—bluntly if you like. He has a fulsome grasp of history and need not fear it—as American leaders must. Read his speeches: They are replete with historical reference, a great strength in any speech by anyone. I have never come across a euphemism in any of Putin’s.

Above all, Putin has an intent, often stated. It is to retrieve Russia from the crippling mess he inherited. It is to do this by way of state-centered political and economic structures that reflect not our desires but Russian tradition, values and conditions. It is to make Russia an equal partner of the West. This last aspiration has nothing to do with the propaganda favorite that he is rebuilding the Soviet empire, I should probably add.

Neither does it have anything to do with bowing to Western designs. Yeltsin spoiled the West in this respect. And on this point I tend to place great emphasis. The story of our time is in large measure the story of the non-West addressing the West from a position of parity for the first time in half a millennium of history. No need any longer to take “modernization” and “Westernization” as synonyms. This is a very big reason Putin is a significant leader.

This following observation will surely bring the Putinophobes out in force, but the patently evident reality is that all this makes Putin far superior as a statesman than anyone Washington may throw up. A partial record looks like this: He saved Obama’s bacon when Assad’s chemical weapons stocks threatened to bring us to war and then played a key support role so that Secretary of State Kerry could get the Iran nuclear agreement done. Muttered thanks on both occasions.

He acted decisively in late September when the threat of terrorism in Syria grew acutely serious, leaving Obama, to borrow his phrase, slouching sullenly in his chair. He has since put the first plausible peace plan on the table in Vienna and, post-Paris, urged a united front against the Islamic State. American accounts of these policies are encrusted with negative innuendo, propaganda and phony objections. (“They are bombing the wrong Islamic extremists.”) In my view the policies speak for themselves more clearly than any rendering of them in the American press.

I am stuck on Donald Trump’s confident remark that he would do just fine with Putin. So often, the id of the GOP has a way of getting to the nub of things.

In my read Trump’s remark is at bottom a boast. “I can do it,” he seems to say, all but beating his chest. Putin’s Kremlin, in other words, has become a proving ground for American leaders—except those, like Obama, who have given up. Certain things are implicit in this.

One is Putin’s credibility as a statesman. Having a purpose—and whether one is for it or not, the Russian leader’s is king-sized—he is formidable. And he is hence a standard of one or another kind, against which American leaders have measured themselves for the past 16 years. This seems an obvious, if unconscious, feature of our discourse.

It is common social psychology that contempt often masks envy. Beneath one’s fears there is often a certain fascination. On the other side of strenuous refutation lies buried an admission that the thing or person refuted presents a temptation.

These things would be bitter to admit, but they deserve that activity too few of us seem capable of when the topic is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin: They deserve thought.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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