Former President George W. Bush said Monday that he did not make a mistake in his initial and often-ridiculed assessment of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, when they first met in 2001 and Bush said he got “a sense of [Putin’s] soul.”
Instead, Bush said, Putin became a different person.
“I think, to a certain extent, he changed,” Bush said Monday in an interview with conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt.
Bush talked with Hewitt about his book, “Decision Points,” in which he relates for the first time the particular exchange with Putin that led him to make his famous comment at a press conference in Slovenia in June 2001.
“The reason why I said that is because I remembered him talking movingly about his mother and the cross that she gave him that she had blessed in Jerusalem,” Bush told Hewitt. “Nobody knows that, and I never tried to make an explanation of why I said what I said until the book.”
In the book, Bush writes that he interrupted Putin as the then-Russian President spoke from note cards and “seemed a little tense.” Bush asked whether the story of his mother giving him a cross was true, and writes that “a look of shock washed over Putin’s face.”
Putin then told the story of recovering the cross from a house fire and said that when a worker found the piece of jewelry it was as if it was meant to be. Bush writes that he remarked, “Vladimir, that is the story of the cross. Things are meant to be.”
But in his interview with Hewitt Monday, Bush said that Putin was “emboldened” by Russia’s resurgent economic outlook – spurred in large part by the rising price of oil – and by the fact that the U.S. was increasingly becoming a debtor nation, financing both government and consumer spending through careless levels of borrowing.
The first item Putin raised in their June 2001 meeting, Bush said, “was about Soviet debt saddling the Russian Federation.”
“At that point, oil was selling for $26 per barrel,” Bush writes in “Decision Points.”
But in a September 2007 meeting, with oil at $71 a barrel and “on its way to $137 in the summer of 2008,” Putin began by asking Bush about the performance of Wall Street created mortgage-backed securities owned by the Russian government.
“So in other words, he’d gone from … from debtor to creditor,” Bush told Hewitt.
Bush also writes that Putin, a former KGB agent, leveraged opposition to the Iraq war in France and Germany to make a deal with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, then France and Germany’s prime ministers, to “counterbalance American influence” in exchange for their support of his “consolidation of power in Russia.”
Putin is now Russia’s prime minister and has made clear recently that there is a real possibility he may return as president in 2012. Under Putin’s leadership freedom of speech and a free press have withered in Russia. Journalists who have been too aggressive have died suspicious deaths, and Putin has imprisoned business leaders who have been too open in opposing his will.
The extent to which Bush had misjudged Putin became clearest in August 2008 when Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet bloc country on its southern border. The two leaders had an intense exchange in the stands of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium during the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony.
Bush told Putin he had warned him that the Georgian leader, President Mikhail Saakashvili, was “hot-blooded.”
“I’m hot-blooded too,” Putin said.
“I stared back at him,” Bush writes in his book. “‘No Vladimir,’ I said. ‘You’re cold-blooded.”
Bush concludes in his book that “given what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War, Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.”