When people try to understand the catastrophe of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they often refer directly to his work as a KGB spy, nostalgia for the collapsed Soviet Union, and anger over NATO expansion. Perhaps this is how future historians will interpret this tragic story.
The moment Putin turned his back on the West
But a different, more complex version appears in recently declassified documents of the George W. Bush administration. Bush maintained a surprisingly close relationship with the Russian leader based on the anti-terrorist alliance. At that time, the United States was fighting al-Qaeda, and Russia was fighting Chechen separatists.
This “alternate history” does not justify or justify Putin’s terrible crimes in Ukraine. His intrusion was illegal and unwarranted. But when assessing such a conflict, it is worth understanding the enemy – and clearly seeing what led to the disaster.
Here are some little-known facts: The Russian-American anti-terrorist alliance collapsed after Chechen separatists attacked a school in Beslan on September 1, 2004. In a terrorist attack333 people died, including 186 children, as well as 31 attackers. Putin then accused the US of encouraging the separatists, offering asylum to “moderate” Chechens, and forcing Russia to negotiate with them. Russian media headlines read, “How would Americans feel if Russia offered asylum to Osama bin Laden?”
Three days after the Beslan attack in September 2004, Putin made a scathing speech from the Kremlin in which he expressed his outrage at the West in a language he had never used before: “We have proved weak. And the weak are beaten.” And then, with an unmistakable allusion to the United States, Putin added: “Some would like to take ‘a juicy piece of cake’ from us.” Others help them … claiming that Russia is still one of the world’s greatest nuclear powers and as such continues to pose a threat to them.”
“We never got back on track” after the Beslan incident, says Thomas Graham, who was then senior director of Bush’s National Security Council for Russia. “Putin came to the conclusion – wrongly from the US perspective – that the US counterterrorism campaign was just a smokescreen to cover up US geopolitical advances in Eurasia at the expense of Russia.”
Rice wrote that from their first meeting, Putin and Bush were “two men who shared a certain intimacy.” Bush expressed this in his 2001 chilling eulogy: “I looked this man in the eye. … I could feel his soul.” But beyond Bush’s overzealousness, as one declassified document explains, there were real signs of attempted negotiation.
“Putin was not only the first world leader to contact President Bush after the September 11 attacks, but he also embraced President Bush’s initiatives by demonstrating support for the War on Terror and the US operation in Afghanistan,” according to a January 2009 classified memo. Bush’s NSS.
To help the CIA organize the campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11, “Putin revoked the powers of his security officials and said that Russia would not block US efforts to establish bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,” says Graham. Russia also provided the US with intelligence from its spy ring in Afghanistan.
One poignant anecdote from the time: Rice recalled in her memoirs that when CIA director George Tenet said he needed supplies for the Northern Alliance allies fighting the Taliban, she called Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister. Ivanov said his agents would find some donkeys for the Americans to use on narrow mountain paths.
Then there was Beslan. Did Putin later have grounds to claim that America helped the Chechen separatists? According to a thorough analysis of the evidence by the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School, Putin was “partially right.” The Belfer Report notes that the United States granted asylum in 2004 to Ilyas Akhmadov, who was the foreign minister of the Chechen separatist government-in-exile. The Bush administration initially opposed Akhmadov’s request for asylum, but then changed its stance.
Chechen separatism was popular with some conservatives. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) met with Akhmadov at least three times. National Fund for Democracy awarded him a federal scholarship. According to Graham, Chechen separatists also raised money in the US to support their cause.
Later, Putin made an extravagant statement that US intelligence agencies were helping the Chechen separatists. The Belfer Center report, again after careful analysis, found “no evidence of direct U.S. government support for armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus.”
In late 2004, Putin’s anger at what he saw as Western machinations intensified when Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko defeated Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential election.
In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Putin condemned the West. “NATO sent forces to our borders,” he said. “We have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?” In 2008, he told William Burns, then ambassador to Russia and now director of the CIA: “Don’t you know Ukraine isn’t even a real country?”
Putin’s turning away from the West may have been inevitable. The Russian leader is authoritarian and wanted to protect Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. But Graham poses an intriguing question, summarizing the secret records: “Did the US and Europeans overlook something fundamental about the situation in Russia at the time? Maybe they misunderstood the situation and did not work out a proposal for cooperation that would adequately take into account Russian interests and prospects?”
A current US official who keeps a close eye on Russia says that “2004 was a turning point, no doubt about it.”