WASHINGTON – When he first ran for president, George W. Bush talked tough on Russia. He threatened to cut off international aid if Moscow continued "killing women and children, leaving orphans and refugees" in its war in Chechnya.
This year, as president, Bush casts Russia not as an oppressor, but as a victim of terror — even as fighting continues in Chechnya and President Vladimir Putin (search) moves to consolidate power in ways seen as threatening the country's fledgling democracy.
It's a shift that reflects the common cause Bush and Putin found in fighting terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the personal relationship they had developed even before then.
It's also a change that fits neatly into Bush's re-election campaign.
Voters see Bush as the best candidate to deal with terrorism, according to opinion polls. His campaign has stressed that issue, warning that terrorist threats remain.
That point was reinforced by this month's massacre at a school in Beslan, Russia, with its horrific images of dead and wounded children.
Beslan and other attacks make terrorism a greater concern to U.S. voters, especially women, who have traditionally voted for Democrats, said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.
"I think almost anything that happens in the realm of terrorism anywhere in the world helps the president," Baker said.
Bush cited Beslan in his speech last Tuesday to the United Nations. "We saw once again how the terrorists measure their success: in the death of the innocent and in the pain of grieving families." Vice President Dick Cheney (search) on Thursday mentioned Beslan as part of the global war on terror.
But Bush's focus on terrorism has raised questions in Congress about whether Russia's struggling democracy and human rights violations are getting enough attention.
"As much as we value Russia's cooperation in other areas of our bilateral relationship, they will have little meaning if Moscow reverts to its old ways," Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Democratic challenger John Kerry has said Bush is "ignoring America's interest in seeing democracy advance in Russia." If he is elected president, the Massachusetts senator said, "we will wage war against terrorists while encouraging renewed progress toward democracy."
Four years ago, it was Republicans accusing President Clinton of "weak and wavering policies toward Russia," as the GOP platform described it.
As a candidate, Bush said he would cut off some aid to Russia if abuses in Chechnya continued. "The Russian government will discover that it cannot build a stable and unified nation on the ruins of human rights," he said in a Nov 19, 1999, speech.
"When the Russian government attacks civilians, killing women and children, leaving orphans and refugees, it can no longer expect aid from international lending institutions," Bush declared.
His approach changed after he met Putin in June 2001 and described him as straightforward and trustworthy. "I was able to get a sense of his soul," Bush said.
That praise produced some short-term dividends, said Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Putin did not try to block the expansion of NATO or Bush's missile defense plans.
But Bush's comments also signaled to Putin that "I'm not going to be concerned about what you do domestically," McFaul said. "I think that has been Bush's policy ever since."
The Bush-Putin relationship deepened after the Sept. 11 attacks. Russia helped the United States in the fight against Afghanistan's Taliban rulers and against al-Qaida, which is suspected of assisting the predominantly Muslim Chechen rebels seeking independence from Russia.
A year ago, Bush praised what he described as Putin's vision for Russia: "a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive."
Many would question that description. Putin has cracked down on independent media and political opponents. After the Beslan massacre, he ordered an overhaul of Russia's political system that included ending the direct election of governors and district races for parliament.
Bush responded by expressing concern about decisions "that could undermine democracy in Russia."
Putin has also been at odds with the United States on major international issues. He opposed the war in Iraq, and Russia is helping Iran's nuclear program.
Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said "the administration has erred on the side of giving Putin the benefit of the doubt when he no longer deserved it."
It's not clear how Putin would respond to a tougher U.S. approach. The United States has less financial leverage with the Russian economy booming and the surge in the price of oil, a key Russian export.
The basic problem is that U.S. leaders have failed to develop a close relationship that would give the United States more sway over Russia, said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa.
"Then you have the leverage for our president to go to Putin and say `Vladimir, I need you to listen to me,"' he said.