George W. Bush praises Putin's truthfulness, puzzles Russian experts

After hearing scathing criticism of the U.S. and its foreign policy from his Russian counterpart for months, President George W. Bush praised President Vladimir Putin for his truthfulness and frankness - a move that drew criticism from some Russia experts.

Coming on Monday at the end of Putin's brief visit to the Bush family compound on the Maine coast, Bush's praise was evidence that Russia is once again considered a nation to be reckoned with by the White House.

But Bush's support for Putin drew puzzlement from some Russia experts, who say the Russian president is being rewarded for behavior that the West should be discouraging.

"Here's the thing, when you're dealing with a world leader, you wonder whether or not he's telling the truth," Bush told reporters Monday. "I've never had to worry about that with Vladimir Putin. Sometimes he says things I don't want to hear, but I know he's always telling me the truth."

Later, Putin seemed to equate Russia's record on human rights and press freedom - both widely criticized - with that of the United States.

"Speaking of common democratic values, we are guided by the idea and principle that these are important both for you and for us," Putin said. "Even in the, shall we say, sustainable democracies, mature democracies, we see basically the same problems ... It has to do with the relationship with the media; it has to do with human rights."

Bush did not react to the evident comparison.

Bush and Putin have had a personal friendship since June 2001, when both held their first summit in Slovenia. "I looked the man in the eye," Bush told reporters after that meeting. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy ... I was able to get a sense of his soul."

In recent years, though, that friendship has undergone strains that might have wrecked others. In February, the Russian president accused the U.S., and by implication the Bush administration, of using "an almost uncontained hyper use of force" in global affairs.

In recent months, Putin seemed to compare the U.S. to Nazi Germany, and threatened to target Europe with missiles if the U.S. builds a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as planned.

Michael McFaul, an expert on Russia at Stanford University, said he welcomes talks between the two leaders, but is puzzled by how easily the White House forgave and forgot Putin's harsh rhetoric.

"He says all this, and for that he gets invited to a special event," McFaul said. "It's better that they're cooperating than when Putin threatens the United States as if we were Nazi Germany. But suddenly we're buddies riding in the boat ... I don't get it."

Speaking of Putin's comparison between Russia's political system and that of the U.S., McFaul, an expert in how democratic societies develop, said that Putin "has probably rolled back democracy further than any other world leader during Bush's presidency."

Sarah Mendelson, a Russia scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Relations in Washington, said she, too, was surprised by Bush's comments that he found Putin to be honest and forthright.

"The last thing I would expect to hear anyone say about the Putin administration is, truth, trust, comfort," said Mendelson.

She was also troubled by Putin's comments comparing Washington and Moscow's relationship with the media.

Western experts have criticized the Kremlin for establishing control of most of Russia's major television stations, which now rarely air critical voices. Mendelson said the Kremlin has failed to investigate the suspicious deaths of journalists.

From the Kremlin's point of view, Putin's warm reception by Bush was both a result of the friendship between the two men and a reflection of Russia's restored strength and influence in the world.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told The Associated Press that some of Russia's critics still wish it were in "transition" from its Soviet past.

"But that time is over and everything is changing," he said.

Bush's praise for Putin yesterday probably masked some doubts. In June, Bush said that Russia's progress toward democracy had been "derailed."

Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said he spoke with Bush some time ago about Russia's political future. Bush was concerned, Kuchins said, about relations between the Kremlin and Bush's successors in the White House.

Kuchins suspects Bush asked Putin to speak frankly about the upcoming presidential elections, and the likely policies of his successor, at the talks here Sunday and Monday.

"Bush wanted to see how things played out with the succession and the election in Russia," Kuchins said.

Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center said that Bush's overriding concern seemed to be to halt the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations at a critical time.

The West, experts agree, needs Russia's help on a host of critical issues ranging from independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

"The agenda of the meeting was not important at all," said Shevtsova. "What was important was the fact of the meeting in the midst of this crisis. The goal was to stop the cool from getting cold."

Putin's chief goal, Shevtsova and other analysts say, was to demonstrate to Russian citizens - in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections over the next eight months - that he is a respected figure in the West.

His treatment, she said, shows that he can stand up to the United States and still be respected by Washington.

"This is a kind of demonstration that, 'I'm tough. I'm in charge, I'm a world-respected leader," she said.

As the first world leader to call the White House and offer condolences after the Sept. 11 attacks, Putin earned the gratitude of the Bush White House. The Russian leader also overcame objections from his military to let the U.S. military open bases in Central Asia to support operations in Afghanistan.

But Putin seemed to sour on U.S. foreign policy after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He also reacted with irritation to Western criticism that the Kremlin was trying to consolidate power by rolling back democratic reform.

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