Putin Emboldened by Gains in Approval Ratings

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With huge approval ratings in his own country, Russian President Vladimir Putin boldly criticized the United States last week. But cold words are better than cold wars.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

At his press conference today, President Bush chose his words carefully when answering a question about Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying the two have a complicated relationship.

Putin has been very critical of the U.S. lately, and that has caught the ear of NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

DANIEL SCHORR: At a security conference in Munich last Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered what you might call preemptive insults to the United States. He was obviously taking advantage of President Bush's widespread unpopularity compared to his own 70 percent approval rating in Russian.

He accused American of a litany of offenses - of destabilizing the Middle East by the war in Iraq, of provoking a new nuclear arms race, of making the organization for security and cooperation of Europe into a vulgar instrument of his own foreign policy and of greater distain for the principles of international law. And he spoke nostalgically of the Cold War.

One can imagine Putin wanting to change the subject from his backtracking from democracy at home. At least 13 journalists have been murdered. His government has not given much help to a British investigation of the death of a dissident by a deadly isotope. The Kremlin has used its control of oil and gas to assert pressure on former satellites like Georgia and Ukraine. And there is the repressive war in Chechnya, which Russia says has been ended, but Russia has said that before.

What is different about this Cold War is that it's a verbal war for influence in the world at large. If one once spoke of containing the Soviet Union, containing it today works both ways. Russia has chosen a moment of maximum American vulnerability in a generally disapproving world.

The Bush administration can only respond, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did in Munich, that one Cold War is enough. In another day, the president would have given a more vehement response to Putin's in your face denunciation. But the days of gazing into Putin's eyes to get a sense of his soul seemed to be over.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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