Why Putin Is Different

The word in Washington is that Jacques Chirac "will have to pay for the line he took during the war." Gerhard Schroeder won't see the White House again, at least not from the inside, say administration hawks. And Vladimir Putin? Ah, he's a different story - nobody is planning to put him on the gallows of American public opinion.

Why not? Those who watched the so-called "losers' summit" at the weekend in St. Petersburg, saw that Putin, in his introverted, minor key was the most blunt of all in his opposition to the American war. The Russian president warned Washington not to establish "a new form of colonial regime" in Iraq and he said the war had failed - Iraq was revealed to be a scarecrow lacking any weapons of mass destruction.

Did the scarecrow justify the loss of life, the humanitarian disaster and the mass destruction, he wondered. And then he added a far-reaching sting - the Americans might find the smoking gun they are looking for but, he hinted, it might only happen if they plant it there.

Up to the last minute the Americans believed the Russians were in their pocket, that their differences were nothing more than tactics hiding tacit agreement with silence, that in the worst case, the Russians would stay neutral and not oppose the war. The threats made by Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov to cast a veto in the Security Council reverberated as strongly as that of his French colleague, Dominique De Villipen. The Americans ignored Ivanov, believing that he was simply playing "bad cop." But it turned out that the "good cop" Putin preferred "old" Europe, which chose to wave a red cape in front of the glaring nostrils of the raging American bull.

Like his French counterpart, Putin warned against "an unjustified" and "illegal" war that would involve many casualties, incite Muslims at home and shake regional and international stability. Putin, afraid of losing the fat contracts Saddam promised him, was also influenced by a rising and seemingly unprecedented tide of public anti-American sentiment.

Like Chirac, he also preaches a multi-polar world in which a "hyper-power" doesn't impose international rules. He wanted to use what he saw as an historical opportunity to rehabilitate the international stature of his country, and he feared that the messianic fervor motivating the Bush administration would lead the Americans to the gates of Pyongyang and - or - Tehran.

But unlike Chirac or Schroeder, Putin is the only one who actually heard Bush's angry voice over the telephone. That was over a Pentagon report that exposed Russian violations of international sanctions against sales of weapons and sensitive technologies to Iraq.

The Russian president may have denied it, and warned Bush that "these false accusations could harm relations between the two countries," but the Russian press preferred to believe the Americans. According to the Russian press, the bombing of the convoy of Russian diplomats leaving Baghdad for Syria last week was nothing more than American revenge.

So how can one explain the fact nobody in the administration in Washington is calling for Russia being taken to task? Why did the cafeteria in Congress change the name of French fries to freedom fires, but not a single congressman called for a boycott of Russian caviar and nobody invited the press to watch him pour vodka into Washington sewers?

First, despite the similar rhetoric, it's impossible to compare the tone and frequency of the French president's anti-American rhetoric to that of his other colleagues in the "rejectionist troika." The U.S. is convinced were it not for Chirac, Putin would have quietly swallowed the American plans.

Second, it's clear America does not expect Russia to meet the same standards and criteria it demands from partners in the North Atlantic alliance. The Russian kid, no matter how big he is, still hasn't finished his lessons in democracy - which might be why efforts by Haaretz to inquire about Russian policy on Iraq have been met by slammed telephones and evasions.

Russian oil also played a role in American thinking. And finally, while France and Germany to establish a European security force to offset American power, Putin apparently understands that ultimately, his economic and strategic circumstances require an alliance with the U.S. over one with a divided continent with an uncertain future.