With Bush in 2001, Putin sought to charm students at a rural Texas high school
Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine makes it hard to remember — or even imagine — that in the early years of his presidency, two decades ago, Vladimir Putin was on a charm offensive with the West. He sought respect from other world leaders, especially in Europe and the U.S., while offering hope of a new openness for Russians at home.
One notable moment in the Putin charm campaign came in November 2001 in rural Crawford, Texas, a tiny town in the center of the state with a population back then of 705 residents. Count President George W. Bush among them. He owned a ranch just outside of town — he'd named the property Prairie Chapel — and he and first lady Laura Bush had invited the Russian leader and his wife Lyudmila to spend the night.
There was work for the two leaders — recall that this was just two months after the terror attacks of 9/11 — with discussion of global threats and how the United States and Russia could work together to fight terrorism.
But there was also time for socializing, for good food and entertainment. The next morning the two presidents paid a visit to nearby Crawford High School.
"We had a great dinner last night," Bush told the cheering student body assembled in the school gymnasium, with a banner that read "Welcome President & President." Dressed in a brown canvas work jacket, Bush seemed to be a very proud host, adding, "We had a little Texas barbecue, pecan pie, a little Texas music. And I think the president really enjoyed himself." Putin, sporting a dark blazer over a black open-collared shirt, stood to Bush's right wearing a wide smile.
Bush talked of how Putin had been the first world leader to call him on Sept. 11, and Bush described his Russian counterpart as a strong partner in fighting terrorism.
Speaking through an interpreter, Putin used his remarks to highlight the two leaders' friendship and cooperation. He also cited the warm greeting from the students that morning, and the role citizens would play in this partnership between nations.
"Being here I can feel the will of these people, the will to cooperate with the Russian Federation, the will to cooperate with Russia," Putin said, and then continued: "And I can assure you that the Russian people fully share this commitment and is also committed to fully cooperating with the American people."
Bush and Putin took questions too, and one dealt with Afghanistan. The U.S.-led war there had just begun the previous month. A student wanted to know how the imminent fall of the Taliban government would affect women's rights. Bush encouraged Putin to take that question, saying that like himself, the Russian president had a "keen desire" to free Afghanistan's women. Putin answered that the disrespect of women and for human rights in Afghanistan had "taken an extreme form."
Putin also had a warning for the Taliban, which was at the time still in power, saying bluntly, "We should not allow any atrocities or violations of human rights to happen."
It's a far cry from today, at a time when headlines around the world are about Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
Another student who spoke at the assembly that day was Amanda Lemons, a senior.
She directed her question to Bush: "Have you decided on whether you're going to go to Russia or not?" Bush then made some news with his answer, saying, "Well — the president invited me and I accepted."
Today Amanda Lemons is Amanda Buckner, and she lives about an hour outside Crawford. She says she has always looked back on that moment with some pride. But she says the most memorable part was not asking a question, but afterward when the two presidents left the stage to greet members of the audience up close. Buckner shook hands with Putin, and says when she did everything seemed to move in slow motion.
More than 20 years later, it's all still pretty vivid, she says. "I remember the color of his eyes, they were dark, uh, deep blue. I was like, I know he's got blue eyes."
And she distinctly remembers how Putin's hands felt.
"They just, they were cold like, you know, they had a chill to them or something," she said. "You know, maybe [it was] cold in the auditorium or, you know, or wherever he was, you know, at first, they just, they were cold."
Today Buckner is 38 years old and says when she turned on her television and saw all of the horrific images of death and suffering and destruction from the war in Ukraine, it shocked her. But compounding her shock is the fact that Putin — a man whose hand she shook, someone who looked her in the eyes — is behind it all.
"Did I really sit there and meet a man who bombs innocent women and children?" she said. Her sentences start and stop as she talks about it. "I can't ... like really I was beside myself, and I kind of ... I felt really overwhelmed."
Just south of Crawford, at the University of Texas, Robert Moser is a longtime professor of Russian politics and history. He recalls the so-called Crawford Summit and the questions he and his own students had at the time about Putin, who'd been in office less than a year and a half at that point.
"Is he the KGB guy, or is he a reformer that might allow the freedoms to persist and concentrate on economic reform?" he recalled.
Moser says we now know the path Putin chose. "There was real interest and hope that there could be a better relationship between the United States and Russia, but it didn't turn out that way."
Mary Elise Sarotte, a Russia expert at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, says looking back, the Bush-Putin summit was a high point of U.S.-Russia relations this century. But she also cautions that it's an overstatement to describe the cooperation on display back then as truly collegial.
"Both parties were getting what they wanted out of the summit, which is not the same thing as collegiality," she said. "And I think we in America, in a sense, were mistaking that for a deeper collegiality that was not in fact there."
For Putin it was being seen as an equal. For Bush it was help in organizing the global effort to confront terrorism and groups like al-Qaida.
But Sarotte points out that moments of friendship between adversaries, a thaw in cold relations, are often fleeting. And the camaraderie on display in the school gymnasium in Crawford faded completely away within a few short years.
Could a moment like was seen in Crawford ever come around again?
Sarotte says history can certainly surprise. She cites the unexpected swiftness of the Berlin Wall coming down. But on U.S.-Russia relations, and amid the war in Ukraine, she says any future cooperative moment seems very far away.
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