A Most Impressive Vladimir Putin
Jude Wanniski
October 6, 2003


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A 3-hour interview with Putin

In the recent several years that I have been watching Russian President Vladmir Putin act on the world stage, I've been most taken by his "cool." He may engage in fits of anger, distress or befuddlement behind the curtains, but out front he has struck me as coming close to what Plato would call "a philosopher king." This comes through more clearly than ever in this three-hour interview he gave to New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers in Moscow Saturday evening. For the gist of what he had to say about his recent Camp David meeting with President Bush, you can read the first several paragraphs of story of the interview. But if you have the time and a serious interest in following global politics, I'd recommend you read the extended excerpts offered by the Times. There you can appreciate the subtleties of mind of this most impressive world leader, subtleties that you can't see in a digest of his remarks or in the sound bites that come across in television reports. You can also feel the "cool" Putin, viewing the world around him as he would a chess board, where "anger, distress or befuddlement" count for nothing in the game; only the moves themselves matter. It took me only 20 minutes to read the transcript and I felt better about the future when I did, glad President Bush has a good personal relationship with this man. It would be good if they had more meetings.

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MOSCOW, Monday, Oct. 6 President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia says the United States now faces in Iraq the possibility of a prolonged, violent and ultimately futile war like the one that mired the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In an expansive interview on Saturday evening, Mr. Putin warned that Iraq could "become a new center, a new magnet for all destructive elements." He added, without naming them, that "a great number of members of different terrorist organizations" have been drawn into the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

To respond to this emerging threat, he said, the Bush administration must move quickly to restore sovereignty to Iraqis and to secure a new United Nations resolution that would clearly define how long international forces remain there.

"How would the local population treat forces whose official name is the occupying forces?" he asked, suggesting that further hostility to the United States was inevitable unless its occupation received the international legitimacy it now lacks.

Mr. Putin said for the first time that Russia was prepared to offer partial relief on the $8 billion it is owed by Iraq, but only in coordination with other major creditor nations in the Paris Club. The United States has been struggling to persuade its European allies to make significant contributions to the multibillion-dollar rebuilding of Iraq.

During an interview that lasted nearly three hours and ranged from Iraq to Russia's economic development to the state of democracy here, Mr. Putin repeatedly characterized Russia's relations with the United States, and his own with President Bush, as close and frank those of a partner, even, at times, an ally.

But at the same time, he was sharply critical of American complaints about Chechnya, of humiliating new visa requirements for Russians, of what he called lingering cold-war habits of mind, and of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, which he simply called "an error."

Mr. Hussein's government had, with reason, been called "a criminal one," Mr. Putin said, but he disputed one of the core reasons given by President Bush for attacking Iraq in March: the assertion that it had ties to international Islamic militancy and terrorism. Rather, he suggested that the invasion of Iraq had created a terrorist haven where one did not previously exist.

"It struggled against the fundamentalists," he said of Mr. Hussein's government. "He either exterminated them physically or put them in jail or just sent them into exile."

Now, he added, with Mr. Hussein ousted, "The coalition forces received two enemies at once both the remains of the Saddam regime, who fight with them, and those who Saddam himself had fought in the past the fundamentalists."

Mr. Putin did not identify the militants entering Iraq, but he said they came "from all the Muslim world." Those militants, he suggested, may now find themselves at ease in Iraq, as they once were among the Afghans, and the "danger exists" of a decade-long struggle like the one fought by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980's. Such fears, he added, "are not groundless."

Mr. Putin spoke at his wooded presidential compound in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, appearing relaxed but also fiercely concentrated. His growing understanding of English was on display in the not infrequent correction of an interpreter on his use of particular words.

As he did during his recent trip to the United States, he seemed eager to present a softer, more congenial image perhaps in response to a flurry of advertisements, protests and newspaper columns suggesting that he was an autocrat bent on reversing Russia's democracy. Mr. Putin affectionately stroked his black Labrador, Koni, who bounded in seemingly on cue for the kinder-Russian-ruler campaign halfway through the interview.

Repeatedly, Mr. Putin used American analogies to drive home his points. Why, he asked, was his wide use of the Russian security services any different from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security? Why should terrorism in Chechnya provoke any lesser response here than America's if the same problems arose in Texas? Why should his former role as a K.G.B. agent prompt concern when the first President Bush was once head of the C.I.A.?

Turning to Iran, Mr. Putin said Russia had sought to address American concerns about its aid in the construction of a civilian nuclear reactor in Iran by insisting that Iran return any spent nuclear fuel a demand not yet ironed out in talks with Iran. Without identifying them, he complained that American and European companies also assisted Iran's nuclear ambitions but did not face sanctions, as some Russian companies had.

He made it clear that Russia reserved the right to complete Iran's reactor at Bushehr. But he also reiterated his call for Iranian leaders to accept expanded international inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, saying they had no reason to object if they had nothing to hide. "We are not only hearing what our U.S. partners are telling us, we are listening to what they have to say," Mr. Putin said. "And we are finding that some of their assertions are justified."

On the conflict in Chechnya, an open sore in Russia's standing in the world, Mr. Putin portrayed the presidential election being held on Sunday as an important step toward a political settlement to end four years of conflict not unlike, he said, what was needed in Iraq. On Monday, the election commission chief in Chechnya, Abdul-Karim Arsakhanov, said the Kremlin's hand-picked candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, had secured victory by gaining more than half the votes, the Interfax news agency reported. The election has been widely criticized as a farce.

Mr. Putin dismissed the criticism and bemoaned what he called an American double standard in which Islamic fighters in Chechnya were called democrats, while those in Afghanistan and Iraq were viewed as criminals. He also joked that when it came to elections, the United States had its own problems. "As yet you have not yet mastered well the situation in California," he said.

Mr. Bush was "courageous" for expressing support for Russian policies in Chechnya, he said, but he complained that other United States "agencies and ministries" were far less helpful a legacy, he said, of a cold-war mentality he also perceived in a recent American decision, now revoked, to send surveillance flights over the Black Sea.

Mr. Putin spoke a week after a four-day trip to the United States that ended with an overnight stay with President Bush at Camp David. A qualitatively new relationship now exists between Russia and the United States one mature enough to withstand pointed criticism and frank advice, Mr. Putin said. "Our interests in the sphere of the fight against radicalism and terrorism coincide," he said.

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The complete dispatch from Myers can be found at