Opinion The moment when Putin turned away from the West

A woman cries in the ruins of the school gymnasium in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 5, 2004. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

When people try to comprehend the catastrophe of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they often draw a straight line back to his apprenticeship as a KGB spy, his nostalgia for a fallen Soviet Union and his rage at NATO enlargement. And that may indeed be the way future historians read this tragic story.

But another, more complicated version emerges in some recently declassified documents from the George W. Bush administration. Bush had maintained a surprisingly close relationship with the Russian leader, centered on a counterterrorism alliance. The United States was battling al-Qaeda at the time; Russia was fighting Chechen separatists. But Putin came to believe that America was an unreliable, hypocritical partner — and that belief would curdle into the open feud that has deepened, year by year.

This “alternative history” doesn’t condone or excuse Putin’s horrific crimes in Ukraine. His invasion of his neighbor was the illegal, unjustifiable act of a ruthless authoritarian. But in assessing the roots of such a conflict, it’s useful to understand the mind of the adversary — and to see clearly the pathway to disaster.

So, here are some little-known facts: The Russian-American counterterrorism alliance ruptured after a Sept. 1, 2004, attack by Chechen separatists on a school in Beslan, in the Russian region of North Ossetia. When the Russian authorities regained control on Sept. 3, 333 people were dead, including 186 children, plus 31 attackers. In the aftermath, Putin blamed the United States for encouraging the separatists by offering asylum to “moderate” Chechens and urging Russia to negotiate with them. A headline in Pravda argued: “How would Americans feel if Russia offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden?”

Russian overreaction contributed to the slaughter at Beslan. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2017 that Russia had used tanks, grenades and flamethrowers to crush the hostage-takers, adding to civilian casualties. Russia’s brutal campaign against the Chechens was a foretaste of what was to come in Syria in 2015 and now in Ukraine. But in 2004, Russia and the United States were partners in a “global war on terror.”

Three days after the September 2004 terrorist attack at Beslan, Putin delivered a blistering speech from the Kremlin voicing his indignation at the West in language he hadn’t used before: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” And then, in an unmistakable reference to the United States, Putin added: “Some would like to tear from us a ‘juicy piece of pie.’ Others help them … reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them.”

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“We never got back on track” after the Beslan incident, argues Thomas Graham, who was Bush’s National Security Council senior director for Russia at the time. “Putin concluded — wrongly in the U.S. view — that the U.S. counterterrorism campaign was just a smokescreen to cover American geopolitical advance in Eurasia at Russia’s expense,” Graham wrote in an afterword to the Russia section of the new book “Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama,” a collection of declassified transition memos prepared for the incoming Obama administration.

This view that Beslan marked a turning point is shared by many other senior officials from the Bush years. “Our relations with Russia were calm, even warm,” wrote Condoleezza Rice in her 2011 memoir, “No Higher Honor.” Rice, a Russian speaker, was Bush’s national security adviser in his first term and then secretary of state. She noted that Bush and Putin developed a “strategic dialogue group” and a “presidential checklist” to address common problems.

From their first meeting, Rice wrote, Putin and Bush were “two men who enjoyed a certain degree of personal chemistry.” Bush expressed this in his now-chilling 2001 encomium: “I looked the man in the eye. … I was able to get a sense of his soul.” But beyond Bush’s overenthusiasm, there were real signs of partnership, as one of the declassified documents explains.

“Not only was Putin the first world leader to reach out to President Bush following the September 11 terrorist attacks, but he was also broadly receptive to President Bush’s initiatives, demonstrating early support for the War on Terror and U.S. operations in Afghanistan,” noted a January 2009 secret memo prepared by the Bush NSC’s Russia directorate.

To help the CIA organize its post-9/11 campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, “Putin overruled his security people and said that Russia would not block U.S. efforts to find bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,” Graham told me. Russia also provided the United States with intelligence from its network of agents inside Afghanistan.

One vivid anecdote from that time: Rice recalled in her memoir that when CIA Director George J. Tenet said he needed supplies for Northern Alliance allies fighting the Taliban, she called Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister. Ivanov said his agents would find the Americans some donkeys that could traverse the narrow mountain paths.

Then came Beslan. Did Putin have any grounds for his claim afterward that America was aiding the Chechen separatists? According to a careful review of the evidence by the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, Putin was “partially correct.” The Belfer report noted that the United States in 2004 granted asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, who was foreign minister of a Chechen separatist government in exile. The Bush administration initially opposed Akhmadov’s asylum request but then changed position.

Chechen separatism was a popular cause among some conservatives. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met with Akhmadov at least three times. The National Endowment for Democracy awarded him a federally funded fellowship. Chechen separatists also raised money in the United States to support their cause, Graham recalled.

Putin later made the extravagant claim that U.S. intelligence agencies had aided the Chechen separatists. The Belfer Center report, again after careful review, found “no evidence of the U.S. government’s direct 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 the West’s machinations would increase when Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko won the presidency over the Kremlin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Russia’s power was slipping around its borders, and Putin was unable to reverse the disintegration.

Though Putin has argued that NATO expansion was the reason he felt betrayed, Bush administration officials say he didn’t express it at the time. “While displeased, Russia swallowed with little acrimony NATO’s admission of seven Central European states in 2004,” Graham writes.

From 2004 on, the movie begins to roll toward the nightmare scenes of today. In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Putin denounced the West. “NATO has put its front-line forces on our borders,” he said. “We have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?” In 2008, he told William J. Burns, then ambassador to Russia and now CIA director: “Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country?”

Putin’s turn away from the West may have been inevitable. The Russian leader is an authoritarian, and he wanted to protect Russian influence in the former Soviet space. But Graham poses an intriguing query in summarizing the classified record: “Did the United States and Europeans miss something fundamental in the Russian situation and psyche at the time? Did they misread the situation and fail to craft an offer of cooperative relations that adequately accounted for Russian interests and perspectives?”

Regardless, a current U.S. official who follows Russia closely argues that “2004 was a turning point, there’s little doubt about it.” By late that year, according to several former officials, U.S. intelligence was gathering reports that Putin’s security chiefs were urging him to break decisively with Bush and adopt a more aggressive policy. And ultimately he did, with a vengeance.