Putin has bested them all: How has the Russian leader gotten the better of Clinton, Bush and Obama?

Putin has bested them all: How has the Russian leader gotten the better of Clinton, Bush and Obama?

Watching Trump beat his chest about how he’d force Putin to his will is a reminder that Putin’s had his way with us

Aug. 9, 1999, was an eventful day for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. In the morning President Boris Yeltsin appointed him deputy prime minister and named him acting prime minister a few hours later. In the afternoon, Yeltsin let it be known that he had selected the come-from-nowhere former intelligence agent to succeed him. By sundown Putin, then 47, announced that he would, indeed, stand for the presidency.

Putin has ever since rotated between the presidency and the premier’s office. That makes 16 years at the pinnacle of power in the Russian Federation. It makes 16 years trying to clean up the tragic, god-awful mess the ever-inebriated Yeltsin had made of post-Soviet Russia. And it makes three American presidencies: Bill Clinton in his final years, George W. Bush and now President Obama have all tried to build a relationship with a man as resolute in his determination to retrieve Russia as Yeltsin was craven in his desire to please the Americans at any cost.

Two things stand out, both remarkable, as one reflects back on this span of years.

One, none of the above-named presidents has succeeded in working well with Putin. Each attempt to structure a relationship, which amounts to restructuring the inherited relationship, has ended more or less in tears. Clinton and Bush II left office crestfallen, to use an old word—disappointed that they could not thread the needle. Obama awaits his turn.

Two, Americans have traveled a long distance in their attitudes toward Putin. When he first took office the common expectation was that he was legitimately a democrat and would do the right thing. Now, 16 years on, we have made of him a Beelzebub who cannot, by definition, ever do the right thing. Putinophobia is prevalent. Roughly speaking, this transformation follows the attitudes of our chief executives and the policy cliques around them: If they come to dislike Putin, our media direct us to dislike Putin, and by and large we oblige.

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