Bush Says Putin Is 'Wily' About Future

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

President Bush yesterday defended his friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin but acknowledged that the Kremlin leader has been "wily" about whether he plans to hold onto power next year and lamented that democracy may not be in the "Russian DNA."

Bush said he tried to grill Putin on the sidelines of an Asian summit last month about whether the Russian president plans to step down next year as promised. "I have no idea what he's going to do," Bush said. "I asked him when I saw him in Australia. I tried to get it out of him -- who's going to be his successor, what he intends to do. And he was wily. He wouldn't tip his hand."

Putin has become an increasingly vexing challenge for Bush. In recent days, Putin has signaled that after his constitutionally limited second term ends next year, he may become prime minister, effectively holding onto power and dashing hopes for any real transition. Putin also lectured two Bush Cabinet secretaries about U.S. missile defense plans, then headed for Iran, where he offered support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his struggle with Bush over Tehran's nuclear program.

Putin's actions prompted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential candidate, to criticize Bush's policy this week, saying that when he looks into the Russian's eyes he sees "a K, a G and a B" and that "it's time we got a little tough" with the former spy. Bush brushed that off, saying he can be more effective with a friendlier approach.

"I believe that diplomacy requires good relations at the leadership level . . . and I'll continue to practice that diplomacy," Bush said. He added: "We don't agree on a lot of issues; we do agree on some. Iran is one."

But Putin did not sound as if he agreed on Iran during his visit. Bush forecast doomsday if Tehran builds nuclear weapons. "We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel," he said. "So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from [having] the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

As for Russian democracy, Bush sounded as if he has all but given up hope. He has long argued that democracy is not inimical to any nation -- usually in reference to the Muslim world -- but he seemed to make an exception for Russia: "In terms of whether or not it's possible to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority, that's hard to do."

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