US-Russia relations weren’t always like this. Back in 2000, Russian president Vladimir Putin was doing his utmost to charm the West.
Immediately after winning the election, Putin made his first trip as president-elect to London, where British prime minister Tony Blair fended off criticism of Putin’s human rights abuses in Chechnya. Putin “talks our language of reform,” Blair said in a press conference, in which they referred to each other as “Vladimir” and “Tony.” When a BBC interviewer asked if Russia might join NATO, Putin replied, “I don’t see why not.” A couple of months later, he began closing Russia’s expensive-to-run, Soviet-era naval bases in Vietnam and Cuba (the process was finished in 2002).
Blair and Putin met five times in total that year, and even shared a glass of vodka in a Moscow cafe in November. When George W. Bush became US president in 2001, he received similarly warm treatment from the Kremlin. Having done his research, former KGB officer Putin didn’t foist alcohol on Bush, a reformed heavy drinker, but instead told a miraculous story about his mother’s crucifix being the only thing left over when his summer house burned down. So charmed was the American president, a fervent Christian, that he remarked, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The new Russian executive seemed cooperative, outward-looking and keen to be part of the liberal world order.
Sixteen years later, Putin’s government has been accused of hacking elections in the US and France, NATO has arguably become Russia’s biggest adversary, and there’s even talk of reopening those shuttered imperial military bases. Having spent years bragging about the stability and prosperity he had brought to the Russian people, Putin now oversees a country that only recently was able to pull itself out of a two-year recession. Though mainly brought on by plummeting oil prices, Russia’s economic fortunes haven’t been helped by EU and US economic sanctions. Imposed following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, these restrictions have also included travel bans on a number of the Russian leader’s closest allies.
So, how did we get here? Putin began turning against the West due to two early factors, says Mikhail Zygar, author of All the Kremlin’s Men, an extraordinary look inside the Kremlin’s power factions during the first decade and a half of Putin’s rule. Zygar based his book on a host of off-the-record interviews with top Kremlin figures, persuading some that he was writing an important historical document that Russians would still be consulting in 100 years.
Firstly, Zygar says, Putin was aggravated by the fact that Bush never viewed Russia as a superpower. “From Bush’s point of view, Russia could have become a normal European country, something like a big Denmark,” says Zygar, who founded Russia’s only independent television channel, TV Rain. “To Putin, that was a humiliation; he wanted Russia to be treated with respect as a superpower, as a kind of empire. Not like a big Denmark, but a democratic Soviet Union.”
Bush’s mantra of “democracy promotion” pushed Putin from offended to peeved, Zygar says. A suspicious slew of pro-democracy “Color Revolutions” took place across the former Soviet Union—in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, countries Moscow considers part of its rightful sphere of influence. In Ukraine’s 2004 election, the Kremlin ploughed money into its favored candidate Viktor Yanukovych, although a lot of that cash was stolen by Russian spin doctors freelancing in Ukraine, Zygar says. When the Orange Revolution took off and Yanukovych lost, Zygar says these Kremlin advisors couldn’t admit that they had pocketed a lot of money, instead claiming the loss was due to EU and US agitation.
“This was probably the first time that Putin thought the EU and US were not only not treating him with respect and not as a partner, but could also be dangerous for him and could support his enemies and try to promote a popular uprising or peaceful revolution in Russia,” says Zygar.