Policy toward Russia should never be based on personalities but this is a lesson that U.S. presidents find very difficult to learn. Russia has a tradition of one-man rule. (The present diarchy is not an exception. By all indications, Medvedev is controlled by Putin.) Striking up a friendship with the Russian leader therefore seems to be a short cut to influencing the country as a whole.
At the same time, an American president at least to a degree owes his success to personal charm. By the time he has become president, he may be little prepared to realize how little his charm will help him in Moscow.
Finally, Russian intelligence compiles psychological profiles of American leaders. If an American president is devoutly religious or, on the contrary, flippant and cynical, if he is a libertine or an ascetic, learned or superficial, it will be taken into account. He will be approached in a way which will take advantage of his weaknesses and push him to overestimate his strengths.
Leonid gets a hug, and six months later Soviet troops invade Afghanistan.
One of the best examples of a “friendship” between a U.S. president and a Russian leader was the relationship between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev. At the 1979 summit meeting in Vienna, Brezhnev greeted Carter with the words, “God will not forgive us if we fail.” Overcome with emotion, Carter threw his arms around Brezhnev and photographs of the embrace appeared on front pages all over the world. Carter’s emotional reaction was taken to symbolize U.S. faith in the Soviet Unions good intentions.
Six months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Carter called Brezhnev on the hot line and asked for an explanation. He was told that Soviet troops were invading Afghanistan to protect the country from a foreign invasion when, in fact, they were the foreign invasion. Carter, who came into office warning against an inordinate fear of Communism, later said that the invasion taught him more about the Soviets’ ultimate intentions than anything that had happened during his entire term in office.
Carter’s mistake, in one form or another, was repeated by his successors except for Reagan. Bill Clinton’s friendship with Yeltsin led the U.S. to ignore the pillaging of Russia under Yeltsin and is one of the main reasons for the anti-American and anti-democratic attitude in Russia today. Bush’s friendship with Putin (after looking into his eyes and getting “a sense of his soul”) led him to mute U.S. criticism of the creation of an authoritarian regime and genocidal tactics in Chechnya.
Obama now says that he wants to push a “reset” button in our relations with Russia. He hasn’t talked yet about his friendship with President Dmitri Medvedev (or Putin). But resetting relations is only possible on the basis of a relationship of trust between leaders. It is not possible if what is at stake are fundamental differences of principle.
It’s hard to blame U.S. presidents for their desire to make a friend out of the Russian leader. But the lessons of history are clear. The best way to deal with Russia is to stick to fundamental moral principles. This means no concessions to the view of reality propagated by an undemocratic regime. As for the personal relationship, theres no need to be impolite. But, as the Russians say, druzhba druzhba no sluzhba sluzhba. (Friendship is friendship but duty is duty.)