After George W. Bush’s 2006 meeting on the tarmac with Vladimir Putin, he famously declared “I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straightforward . . . and trustworthy . . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.” So did Foreign Service Officer Robert Andrew, only a few minutes before Bush’s meeting. Yet he found quite a different soul. As Putin walked into the VIP airport terminal before his meeting with Bush, he “intense[ly] and ic[ily]” stared at everyone in the room, sizing them up. Andrew was taken aback by his harshness, reminding him of a hardened criminal. As soon as Putin met Bush, though, Andrew saw him “turn into a butterfly.”
The meeting itself was only four weeks in the making, which meant the embassy worked on much shorter notice than usual. Andrew worked as an assistant control officer, planning around the clock for the visit. On the day of the visit, Andrew arrived hours earlier at the airport, where he worked on last minute pre-coordination to get ready for the visit. A few hours later, Putin arrived, and Andrew received that icy stare while Bush received a warm welcome. Many years after the meeting, Bush admitted that Putin had fooled him, recognizing that Putin’s warmth may not have been genuine.
In Russia, Robert Andrew worked in the political/military section of the embassy, dealing with issues relating to the military, terrorism, and many others. Read about Andrew’s experience with Putin and more below.
Robert Andrew’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on December 10, 2020.
Read Robert Andrew’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Zachary Turinsky
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The “Putin story”
I’ll finish up the Russia talk with my Putin story, and then we can see if you have any other questions. This has to do with the presidential visit, the POTUS (President of the United States) visit. It was November of 2006. George W. Bush, of course, was president in his second term, and he was headed to Beijing to go to APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Conference).
He was going to Beijing, and normally, as I understand it, when the president travels to China, they normally fly west from Washington, refuel on the West Coast, and then fly over the Pacific. Well, he wanted to meet Putin in person about something, so he was going to travel east from the U.S., do a refuel, and meet with Putin in Moscow on the way to Beijing.
Usually, in the best of times with a POTUS visit, you know that they’re coming a long way out. Maybe six months, maybe even a year. People always have that in the back of their mind, and then as the last few months get closer together, you do a lot of work towards preparing it.
You know this better than I do. I won’t say this was a no-notice visit, but I think we had about six weeks’ notice. We started scrambling. Even though an embassy like Moscow has its own travelers and visitors’ unit that deals with the visits of senior government officials all the time, it’s at a whole other level when it’s a POTUS visit, especially to Russia. We really had four weeks to get this visit ready.
I became one of the assistant control officers. The president, during his visit, was never going to leave the airport. Air Force One was going to be on the ground for about two hours doing a refuel, a maintenance check, etc. During this timeframe, he wanted to meet with Putin. We set it up where they would have a meeting at the airport. There are three main airports in Moscow. There’s Sheremetyevo, Vnukovo, and Domodedovo. Vnukovo, starting with a V, is kind of their domestic airport for Russia, but also, they have this nice VIP terminal where they bring in heads of state and heads of government to do VIP treatment and arrivals. They’ve got it all set up for that.
That’s the background of this story. I get to the airport a couple of hours early, after all of the pre-coordination before game day. We’re working with the White House Communications Agency. Boy, they’re real pills to work with, by the way, but they have a hard job to do to make sure the president’s always in communication with national security authorities. It’s Russians and Americans working together in this terminal to make sure the visit goes off without a hitch. There’s going to be a room where the presidents meet and where they come in, etc. We’ve rehearsed all of this stuff.
About 30 minutes before Air Force One lands, Putin comes in. He arrives. I can remember this clear as day. He was wearing this orange parka. It was November, so it was chilly in Moscow by then. He takes it off and hands it to one of his aides, kind of dropping it off/releasing it. He’s not a tall person. He’s about five foot six. He walks in, and there are roughly 20 to 30 of us there. We’re not really milling about, but we know he’s coming in, so we kind of stop what we’re doing.
When he comes in there… It’s hard to replicate over Zoom or over a recording, but he briefly looks everybody in the eye. He kind of sizes everybody up, left and right. I made eye contact with him, and I felt this icy cold glare. I was really taken aback. I was like, holy smokes. This is
like the Godfathers just walked in, or a KGB intel agent or something that felt incredibly criminal. He’s sizing me up, along with everyone else in the room.
I even checked my wallet to make sure it was still in my pocket after that glare. He does this. He surveys the entire room in a
matter of a few seconds, looking around. After this intense and icy stare around the spacious VIP terminal, his aides scurry him off to this room. The next part is about 10 minutes before Air Force One lands, Putin and his then-wife Ludmilla walk out of this room. Now, if Ludmilla’s there, that, of course, tells you that Laura Bush is coming with George. For protocol purposes, if one spouse is coming and the other guy or gal’s married, then the spouse or partner or significant other should be there.
They come out. It’s like a cocoon has turned into a butterfly. The president of Russia emerges from this room. He’s smiling, his eyes are sparkling, he’s shaking hands. If there had been a baby in there, I’m sure he would have gone and kissed it like a great American politician. What he’s done is, in my mind, he’s transformed himself, and he’s now the president of a great country. He even looks taller. Maybe he put on elevator shoes; I don’t know. But he looks bigger. He’s a great politician, a great leader of a great country.
A small tangent from this story. This is about when Air Force One landed. We’ll leave Putin for a second. I see the big plane land, and I see it taxi up, and I have to tell you, I am a patriot. I love the flag, but I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so proud as to see that big 747. On the fuselage, it
says, “United States of America,” and on the tail there’s the American flag, and I know that this plane represents America. No matter who the president is… I have to say, I had a little bit of patriotic heart-pounding going on, and I was like, man, that’s a great moment to see. I know you’ve worked POTUS visits. It’s quite a thing it got to me.
Back to Putin. They have the red carpet out there. George W. Bush and his wife Laura come down from the aircraft and Vladimir and Ludmilla meet them at the bottom of the steps. They jointly come into the terminal, and they go to this room. They walk by and make a little small talk and joke. William Burns was the ambassador at that time. Of course, he’s now the CIA director. Putin had been taking some English lessons back then and I think that now he speaks a lot more English, but back then, he had just a few English phrases. He said something to Bush. I could hear him say, “Well, that’s a good ambassador you have here.”
Bush said, “Yeah, I agree, I think he’s a good guy.” Then they walked into this room. That’s really the end of my story, but the punchline is this: Right then, at that moment at that airport, I remembered what George W. Bush had said about his first meeting with Putin back in 2001 when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I looked into his eyes and I saw his soul, and it was good.”
(The actual quote is: “I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straightforward…and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”)
At that moment, I thought to myself, after seeing Putin come in before he thought there was anyone really watching him, when he was sizing people up… I said to myself, my God, Mr. President, you’ve been fooled. It was years later that Bush actually admitted, “He bamboozled me. He fooled me.” He publicly stated that. I was glad to hear that he did. I was wondering, how much did Putin fool Bush when he was the president because he was a different person when he was with Bush than when he was with other people? I guess that’s natural to a degree, but he really turned on the charm to him, whereas I think, at the end of a day, he’s nothing more than a Russian criminal figure and probably with blood on his own hands.
I don’t have any proof of that, but that’s my Putin story. It really opened up my eyes to him as a leader and how he leads the country versus how he fools other leaders. Nowadays, I don’t think he’s fooling anybody. President Biden has called him a killer or said other things in the past, and Putin has basically said, “Yeah, well, we understand each other.” I don’t think Putin’s trying to fool anybody anymore, but I think that in his first few years, he was trying to, to a degree.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Political Science, California State University, Chico 1985–1989
MA in National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School 2002–2002
Joined the Foreign Service 2002
Moscow, Russia—Political/Military section 2005–2007
San Jose, Costa Rica—Anti-Narcotics Officer 2007–2010
Stockholm, Sweden—Political Section Chief 2011–2014