What’s it like to meet Putin face to face?

Looking ahead to the Helsinki summit, FSI director Michael McFaul recalls President Obama’s first meeting with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2009. Excerpt: From Cold War to Hot Peace, published with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Our second day in Moscow began with a drive back out of town to meet with Prime Minister Putin at his country residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, a Moscow suburb where many senior Russian government officials live. It can be reached in thirty minutes with a presidential police escort or two hours without. To refer to the homes in this region as dachas, or country houses, is a gross understatement. Residents there all live in mansions that are part of giant compounds situated on acres of land. Putin rarely met with anyone important at his prime minister’s office in the White House, the building where the Russian government was located. He preferred that guests come to him at his compound. So we did.

President Obama meets with then-Prime Minister Putin in 2009, accompanied by Michael McFaul (fifth from left). Credit: Pete Souza

After a quick press spray, we spent the first hour of the meeting indoors over breakfast. With President Obama were Jones, Burns, and myself. Putin’s protocol office limited participation to “POTUS +3”; his team, as I would come to learn, was militant about keeping these meetings small.

We were scheduled to have sixty minutes with Putin. After pleasantries were exchanged, Obama opened the conversation by expressing his optimism for U.S.-Russia relations. Putin interrupted him early to express a different view.

For the next hour, Putin walked through the complete history of U.S.-Russian relations during his time as president. He punctuated his narrative with several instances of disrespect from the Bush administration. He liked President George W. Bush as a person, he told Obama, but loathed his administration. As Putin explained, he had reached out to Bush after September 11, believing that the United States and Russia should unite to fight terrorists as a common enemy. He had helped persuade leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to allow the U.S. to open air bases in their countries to help fight the war in Afghanistan. But in return, so he claimed, the Bush administration had snubbed him. Putin even suggested that Russia and the United States could have cooperated on Iraq had the Bush administration treated Russia as an equal partner. But it did not, and that’s why U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated so dramatically while Bush was president. The Bush team had supported color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine — a blatant threat to Russia’s national interests. In Putin’s view, Russia had done nothing wrong; America was to be blamed for the poor relations between the two countries.

Putin knew how to tell a dramatic story. For each vignette of disrespect or confrontation, he told the president the date, the place, and who was at the meeting. During one story, he pointed to a chair he recalled Condoleezza Rice sitting in at the time, right next to Sergei Ivanov, then Putin’s defense minister. He must have rehearsed all these details beforehand. For one story about counterterrorism cooperation, Putin told Obama how the Russians had benefited from some information shared with them by American officials. Dramatically, he waved away the waiters serving us tea, leaned in, and told Obama that they had used this information to “liquidate” the terrorists.

As I remember it, Putin spoke uninterrupted for nearly the entire time scheduled for the meeting, documenting the injustices of the Bush administration. This was a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Obama listened patiently, maybe too patiently. I was amazed. There was no way I could have sat for a full hour without saying something. I was also nervous. The meeting was scheduled for sixty minutes, and by minute fifty-five the U.S. president had not said a thing. It was my assignment to read out this meeting to our press corps later that day. I couldn’t tell them that Obama had merely listened the entire time!

My worries were misplaced. In the end the meeting went well beyond three hours, and Obama had plenty to say. His main message was again about Reset. He asked Putin to have an open mind about resuming engagement with the United States on issues of common interest. He explained to Putin that he was different, representing a break with many of the policies of the Bush administration. Obama avoided flowery language about friendships and strategic partnerships. Instead, he pledged to always be straight with Putin and to respect Russia.

The two most contentious subjects that morning were missile defense and Iran. Putin explained to Obama why planned American missile deployments in Europe threatened “strategic stability” — otherwise known as mutual assured destruction (MAD) — between our two countries. Putin seemed annoyed — irrationally annoyed — with the Bush administration’s plan for missile-defense deployments so close to Russia’s borders. Obama pledged to review America’s missile-defense plans and get back to Putin on his decisions. Putin expressed less concern about the Iranian threat than Medvedev had. He talked more generally about the strategic importance of Russia’s bilateral relationship with Iran as its most significant partner in the Middle East. Obama urged Putin to leverage his influence with the Iranian leaders to dissuade them from developing nuclear weapons. Curiously, Putin responded by saying that he was not responsible for foreign policy anymore: you need to talk to “Dmitry” about that, he advised. However, when Obama warned about the destabilizing effects of shipping Russia’s S-300 antiaircraft system to Iran, Putin engaged. The S-300 was a defensive system, Putin argued. This Russian weapon only threatened those who intended to attack Iran — Israel and the United States. In addition, Putin argued, Russia already had signed a contract with the Iranian government that was worth billions. To renege on the agreement would damage Russia’s reputation and hurt Russian industry. Weren’t Americans for the rule of law, for the fulfillment of contracts?

Putin’s worldview was different from Medvedev’s. The day before, Medvedev had implied that stronger ties with the United States would help him advance his interests abroad and at home, and that U.S.-Russia cooperation could help international stability more generally. After three hours of listening to Putin discuss various international issues, it was clear to me that he saw the world in more zero-sum terms. At this moment, he was not against cooperation with the United States, but he most certainly did not see closer relations with the United States as necessary for pursuing his definition of Russian national interests. Medvedev was president because Putin had selected him for the job, but the two men did not approach foreign policy the same way, especially regarding relations with the U.S. The KGB shaped Putin’s understanding of the world. By contrast, Medvedev was a lawyer, born a decade later — ten fewer years of life in the USSR. That made a difference.

Putin and Medvedev also had very different communication styles. Medvedev organized his thoughts in paragraphs, used eloquent sentence structures, and spoke in a soft voice. Putin had a high voice, but it was sharp, not soft. As our translators over the years explained to me, Putin’s language was relatively blunt and more direct; some have even called his manner of speaking vulgar. Putin also spoke with the confidence conveyed by his years in power; Medvedev had just finished his first year as president. Putin went out of his way to convey his worldly experience to the new young American president, at times even hinting at his own indifference to what we Americans sought to accomplish with U.S.-Russia relations. He did not once utter the word “reset.”

At the same time, it was clear that Putin wanted to impress Obama. The breakfast spread was elaborate, featuring several kinds of caviar and exotic eggs. A server in traditional nineteenth-century peasant dress took off his tall leather boot, using it to stoke the fire in the samovar warming water for our tea. Even members of our usually cynical press corps made note of the impressive show.

By the end of the marathon session, I thought Putin had warmed somewhat to the possibility of cooperation with us. When Putin ranted about the stupidity of invading Iraq, Obama responded calmly that he agreed, reminding Putin that he too opposed that war well before it began. That seemed to surprise the prime minister: all Americans did not think alike. I sensed that Putin was considering the possibility that Obama might be different. Putin also liked what he heard from Obama about the need to develop economic ties as part of our diplomatic mission, rather than focus on a limited Cold War agenda of security issues. As Putin escorted us to our cars, I got the impression that he felt betrayed in his attempt to reset Russian-American relations in 2001, and therefore didn’t want to be too involved this time around. Been there, done that. At the same time, he was not opposed to us trying again with Medvedev. He made a point of reminding Obama again that Medvedev as president was in charge of foreign policy. Medvedev was our guy, not Putin.

Driving back to the city, my knees awkwardly bumping up against those of the president of the United States as we talked face-to-face in the back of the Beast, I could tell that Putin had made an impression on Obama. Putin had been on the world stage for a decade. He knew all the global players. He had developed firm, clear views about most issues. He wasn’t doing policy reviews like us newbies. We all agreed that the meeting had gone well enough. Obama was polite, but held his ground. Putin communicated clearly his disappointment with the Bush administration, but also seemed willing to consider the possibility of a more productive relationship with the new guy in the White House. We also agreed that figuring out ways to engage Putin was going to be a central challenge. Putin clearly had signaled that engagement with us was not in his portfolio. Yet we understood from that session that he remained the primary decision maker in Russia.

Amazingly, Obama and Putin would not meet again until Putin became president in 2012. They would never have a formal summit together, in Moscow or Washington.

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.


Faculty views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.