In June 2001, when George W. Bush held his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, he famously declared that he had "looked the man in the eye" and "was able to get a sense of his soul," in which he evidently saw only good things untainted by years of KGB service. This beginning of a beautiful friendship was reportedly aided by Putin's touching story of a cross which he received from his mother and which miraculously survived a fire at his summer cottage. (As one of Russia's surviving liberal commentators, Yulia Latynina, has noted, if Bush had belonged to a different faith Putin would no doubt have shared an equally touching tale about "a piece of advice given by a wise rabbi.")
In the six years since then, much has happened in Russia: first and foremost, a steady and brutal rollback of the freedoms gained since the start of glasnost in the late 1980s. Independent television has been obliterated; most of radio and the print press have been muzzled as well. The multiparty system has become an unfunny joke. Vocal critics of Putin have ended up in prison and, in several notorious cases, suspiciously dead. What's more, Russia, an ostensible ally in the War on Terror, has used this alliance mostly to justify its military's atrocities in Chechnya while refusing to back the U.S. on a wide range of foreign policy issues (mostly notably on sanctions against Iran). Anti-American hysteria has been rampant in the servile Russian press. In his speech last May commemorating Russia's victory over Germany, Putin transparently suggested that the United States was seeking world domination in the same manner as the Third Reich.
Meanwhile, the beautiful friendship endures.
Earlier this month, Putin visited Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine for a meeting that news reports described as intended to "work on their personal relationship." In addition to informal talks, the visit included a speedboat ride and a dinner in the company of Laura Bush—as well as, presumably, more soulful gazing into eyes.
One of the strongest reactions to this meeting came from Marina Litvinenko, widow of the mysteriously poisoned defector and fierce Putin foe Alexander Litvinenko, and the deceased's close friend Alexander Goldfarb (the co-authors of a book about the murder). In a letter to the New York Times, Litvinenko and Goldfarb wrote that by inviting Putin to dinner, "President Bush helped repair the damage that Mr. Putin's reputation suffered after the murder of Alexander V. Litvinenko." Litvinenko and Goldfarb point out that the murdered man himself named Putin as his murderer on his deathbed, which is not exactly conclusive. It is far from certain that Putin himself ordered Litvinenko's death. But his arrogant response to the British investigation into the death is bad enough. Less than a month before his meeting with Bush, Putin brushed off the formal British request to extradite the principal suspect, Russian businessman and former KGB man Andrei Lugovoi, as "stupidity."
Such arrogance is par for the course for Putin, whose only comment on charges that investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on the Kremlin's orders was to dismiss Politkovskaya's work as insignificant and to say that "this murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications."
In other recent dispatches from Putin's Russia, a crackdown on independent political websites has already begun, supplemented by a wave of cyber-attacks on sites critical of the government. (Russia has refused to cooperate in the investigation of similar, well-organized attacks on Estonian government websites following a diplomatic crisis between Russia and Estonia over the latter's removal of a monument to Soviet soldiers.) And on Sunday, the New York Times ran a frightening front-page story on Russia's officially sponsored youth movement, Nashi ("Our Guys"), marked by fanatical devotion to the person of Vladimir Putin, nationalist and socially conservative values, and hatred of the opposition. Nashi, which violently besieged the Estonian embassy in Moscow during the dispute over the monument and held pickets that forced a regional governor to apologize for inviting a member of an opposition party to attend a youth conference, is now reportedly conducting paramilitary training with the intent of "challenging those who take to the streets to protest the Kremlin."
The hardening of the Kremlin line is widely seen as a prelude to the 2008 presidential elections. Despite Putin's vows not to seek a third term, prohibited under Russia's constitution, many Kremlin watchers expect him to stay in one way or another. Two years ago, when Putin loyalists began a push to amend the constitution to lift the two-term limit, British reporter Adrian Blomfield wrote in The Telegraph that "the main factor deterring Mr. Putin from changing the constitution is the fear of the likely cool response from the West." But just how much of a fear is that? Neither the Litvinenko murder and the Kremlin's cynical response to it nor the slow murder of freedom in Russia have made Putin any less welcome in the West's polite society—as Vlad's Sunday in Kennebunkport with George amply demonstrates.
The United States cannot, of course, break off relations with Russia. But for the President of the United States—who, whatever one may think of him personally, holds the highest office in the most powerful country of the free world—to embrace the president of today's authoritarian Russia as a friend is to give moral sanction to a regime that shows blatant contempt for democratic and civilized norms.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.