Bush and Putin build friendship few predicted

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Nothing in common, people said of backslapping George Bush and ex-spy Vladimir Putin. Yet the two leaders seem determined to find common ground. They talk warmly of heart, soul and trust.

Today, the U.S. and Russian presidents meet on American soil for the first time. But they have spoken often, and Putin was the first world leader to call with words of support after Sept. 11.

"That's what a friend does," Bush said. "Call in a time of need."

Bush's pronouncement in the summer that he had peered into Putin's soul at their first meeting abroad set the tone -- and drew some smirks. But not from Putin.

Asked about Bush's remark during an interview last week, Putin insisted: "Those who smile in response to his words, well, there's one thing I can say about this: I believe it's not accidental that he became the president of the United States."

In July, Putin said, "He sees better and deeper and understands the problems more accurately."

'I can't explain it'

After their initial conversation about the terrorist attacks on the United States, Putin withdrew to his dacha on the Black Sea to consider Russia's response. While he was there, Bush called him from the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, and the two talked for 40 minutes. Within days, Putin announced a five-point plan to support the American war against terrorism.

"They have a close relationship on a personal level that has developed faster than I would've expected," said Michael McFaul, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and a leading expert on Russia.

"In a way, you can't imagine people with more different backgrounds, and yet something happened in that first meeting where they thought they could do business. Frankly, I can't explain it."

Had the personal relationship not been there, said McFaul, Putin's response to the terror attacks might have been different.

The two leaders were to meet today in Washington and then move on to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

With difficult issues like weapons reductions and missile defense on the agenda, a good rapport and a homey setting like the ranch may help smooth the negotiations.

Warmth worries some

But some worry Bush's embrace of Putin may lead him to "give away more than he should," in the words of Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert.

"Bush may overestimate the changes inside Russia and overestimate the change Putin represents," said Daalder, pointing to Putin's brutal prosecution of the war in Chechnya, his restrictions on the media and his years of KGB service.

Still, Bush's warmth toward Putin can't help but encourage the Russian leader in strengthening ties to the West, said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a private policy group in Washington.

"It would be strange for Putin not to feel grateful and not to feel that Bush was ahead of his own government in treating Russia as a serious country," said Simes.

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