In many ways, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney are rather similar characters. Both are highly intelligent, but both see the world above all through the restrictive prisms of security and national power.
Both are patriots, but like so many leaders with a tendency to see national power and their own power as one and the same thing. Both are capable of great ruthlessness in defending what they see as the vital interests of their countries. Both are publicly committed to democracy and human rights, but both have been responsible for policies that have called this commitment into question.
But to judge by their records, and especially their speeches of the past week, there is also an important difference between them. Putin is a statesman, and Cheney is not.
Cheney's tub-thumping speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, attacking Russia for lack of democracy and energy 'blackmail,' coupled with his attempts to create an energy alliance against Russia, invited a blistering response from the Russian president. With perfect fairness, and with the approval in this case of most of humanity, Putin could have torn Cheney's speech apart on a whole range of issues.
These include the hypocrisy of denouncing Russia over democracy and going straight on to lavish praise on the oil-rich dictators of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan; the general weirdness of Cheney talking about human rights at all; the insolence of an administration with the Bush-Cheney team's record in the Middle East daring to demand automatic Russian support against Iran in the name of 'the international community,' and so on.
If Putin had issued such a response in his state of the union address on Wednesday, he would have had the approval of the overwhelming majority of Russians while of course doing still further damage to U.S.-Russian relations.
It is hard to imagine a U.S. president turning down a domestic political opportunity like this, whatever the likely effect on his country's interests. But apart from a couple of mild and indirect comments, Putin said none of these things. Instead, he focused on the issue that is indeed the greatest threat to the Russian nation, namely demographic decline.
Putin's calm response to Cheney may be rooted partly in a new confidence in Russia's strength, especially when it comes to influence within the former Soviet Union. One of the marks of Putin's statesmanship is that with some exceptions (mainly with regard to Ukraine, about which Russians tend to be irrational) he has displayed an accurate feel for Russia's real strengths and weaknesses.
To give one example, Putin last year withdrew the remaining Russian military bases from Georgia proper, where they were provocative and vulnerable, while continuing the Russian military presence in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where it enjoys overwhelming local support.
On critical issues like the Iraq war and Iran's nuclear program, Putin has tried to resist U.S. pressure while keeping Russia in line with China and whenever possible Western Europe as well.
This is statesmanship cynical maybe, but still statesmanship.
The Bush-Cheney administration, by contrast, has a record of grossly over-estimating American power. To judge by Cheney's speech in Vilnius, it may be repeating the same disastrous mistake with regard to U.S. policy towards Russia and in the former Soviet Union.
For if Washington's chief goal is to destroy Russian influence in this region and replace it with that of the United States, it needs to remember that whatever its weakness on the world stage, in its own backyard Russia has some tremendous latent strengths.
If, on the other hand, the more important factor behind Cheney's attack was Russia's role in the U.S. struggle with Iran, then his attack on Russia in Vilnius raises two possibilities one of them depressing, the other disastrous.
The first is that Cheney and other leading U.S. officials genuinely believe that the United States can gain support for its policies by abusing and threatening other major states.
If so, this reflects not only a Neanderthal approach to diplomacy, but a failure to grasp the damage to American power from the Iraq debacle, and the increased strength and confidence of Russia, China and other countries.
The other possibility is that Cheney is no more interested in a negotiated compromise with Iran than he was with a deal to prevent the Iraq war; and that by driving Russia into Iran's arms, he hopes to wreck any possibility of such a compromise and leave military action against Iran as the only apparent U.S. option.
If this is so, then given the potentially catastrophic implications of a U.S. attack on Iran, not only Russians but the world in general should be grateful for the statesmanship of Putin's response, and should hope that this Russian line continues.