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How the U.S. made its Vladimir Putin problem worse

Apr 21 2014, 22:14 IST
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As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. (Reuters) As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. (Reuters)
SummaryIn September 2001, as the U.S. reeled from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center...

In September 2001, as the U.S. reeled from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vladimir Putin supported Washington's imminent invasion of Afghanistan in ways that would have been inconceivable during the Cold War.

He agreed that U.S. planes carrying humanitarian aid could fly through Russian air space. He said the U.S. military could use airbases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. And he ordered his generals to brief their U.S. counterparts on their own ill-fated 1980s occupation of Afghanistan.

During Putin's visit to President George W. Bush's Texas ranch two months later, the U.S. leader, speaking at a local high school, declared his Russian counterpart "a new style of leader, a reformer, a man who's going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful, by working closely with the United States."

For a moment, it seemed, the distrust and antipathy of the Cold War were fading.

Then, just weeks later, Bush announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that it could build a system in Eastern Europe to protect NATO allies and U.S. bases from Iranian missile attack. In a nationally televised address, Putin warned that the move would undermine arms control and nonproliferation efforts.

"This step has not come as a surprise to us," Putin said. "But we believe this decision to be mistaken."

The sequence of events early in Washington's relationship with Putin reflects a dynamic that has persisted through the ensuing 14 years and the current crisis in Ukraine: U.S. actions, some intentional and some not, sparking an overreaction from an aggrieved Putin.

As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. Experts said he is also promoting "Putinism" - a conservative, ultra-nationalist form of state capitalism - as a global alternative to Western democracy.

NOT PAYING ATTENTION?

It's also a dynamic that some current and former U.S. officials said reflects an American failure to recognize that while the Soviet Union is gone as an ideological enemy, Russia has remained a major power that demands the same level of foreign policy attention as China and other large nations - a relationship that should not just be a means to other ends, but an end in itself.

"I just don't think we were really paying attention," said James F. Collins, who served as

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