How to crack Putin's code

The U.S. press buried the lead in most media coverage of President Bush’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin a week ago. The White House wants to focus on Bush as a worldwide champion of democracy, a leader willing to pressure allies like Russia and Egypt while sponsoring elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the light sparring between the two presidents over Russia’s commitment to Western-style democracy was not their most important discussion.

The U.S. press buried the lead in most media coverage of President Bush’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin a week ago.

The White House wants to focus on Bush as a worldwide champion of democracy, a leader willing to pressure allies like Russia and Egypt while sponsoring elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the light sparring between the two presidents over Russia’s commitment to Western-style democracy was not their most important discussion.

Democracy cannot flourish without a stable and secure society. The real contributions Bush and Putin made toward that goal were agreements to secure weapons-grade nuclear material in Russia and elsewhere.

The raw material for thousands of homemade nuclear bombs is scattered around 40 nations of the world, not to mention the potential atomic bazaar that is North Korea. A suicide bomber in a Toyota pickup could deliver a workable weapon to the heart of Moscow, Mosul or Minneapolis and add three zeros to the number of casualties resulting from the most powerful car bomb used to date.

Such a blast that would truly destabilize an emerging government. It is a catastrophe that, were it to happen here, would paralyze the nation and likely cause any administration to limit social liberties to the extent we would no longer recognize democracy in our own country.

In the 2004 presidential debates, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry said in response to a question that nuclear terrorism was the greatest threat facing the world today. Bush agreed. Two days later, the issue had disappeared from news coverage. In reports of Bush’s recent meeting with Putin, what appear to be serious steps toward limiting that threat wound up buried in most stories.

Why didn’t the media notice that something significant might have happened in Slovakia last week? In part because the White House is so intent on portraying the president as a 21st-century Johnny Appleseed of democracy — a rather Wilsonian role for a conservative Republican, some have noted — and in part because many in the media reflexively believe Putin to be a Checkist dragging his nation back to a totalitarian society.

I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time working in Russia in the early 1990s as the nation struggled to understand free markets and self-government. I even had a couple of meetings with a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin. My strongest memory of those encounters is a pair of steel-blue eyes that demanded to know everything and an expressionless face that said nothing.

As Paul Starobin writes in March’s Atlantic Monthly, Putin is a classic Russian character who “knows that Russia can count only on itself. ‘Russia has no allies but its weakened army and weakened navy.’” Putin, like many Russians, believes his country’s version of democracy must be unique to the Russian soul.

Once the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russian democracy went through a very sloppy period. Debate in the Duma often ended in fistfights. Former communist cronies suddenly became capitalists and cut sweetheart deals for oil companies, television networks and steel mills.

Under a disengaged President Yeltsin, Russia’s government and business sector became the playground of oligarchs. Yes, there was now media independent of government, but it was media that aggressively promoted the agenda of the powerful oligarch who owned it. One even boasted of personally reelecting Yeltsin, a claim that was based on some pretty compelling evidence.

Putin certainly fed the mixed messages coming out of Bratislava last week. He compared replacing elected governors with appointed ones to the U.S. Electoral College. “No one elects them,” the Russian president said. True, but off-point. He and aides also compared his government’s sacking of media chieftains with CBS’s decision to fire those responsible for a faulty story on Bush’s military record. Both statements showed a serious misunderstanding of the U.S. press and how to manage a message.

The Russian president’s pledge that his country will never return to totalitarian rule will be closely watched. The test of his commitment to a Russian-style democracy will be if there is an honest handover of power in 2008.

The news media should carefully monitor those developments. But they should also spend some time on the real message of the meeting between the two presidents.

It appears a genuine commitment has been made to ending the threat of nuclear terrorism. Holding both Bush and Putin to delivering on that promise will do more to preserve freedom in the world than parsing the meaning of democracy in Russia.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com