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Putin warned against allowing atrocities to happen in 2001 Texas town hall

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine makes it hard to remember or even imagine that in the early years of Vladimir Putin's presidency, he was on a charm offensive with the West. Putin sought respect abroad while pledging new openness at home. NPR's Don Gonyea takes us back to one such moment more than 20 years ago in Texas.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was November of 2001 in rural Crawford, Texas, population 705 back then. President George W. Bush owned a ranch just outside of town, and he and the first lady had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife to spend the night. The next morning, two presidents dropped by the local high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: We had a great dinner last night. We had a little Texas barbecue, pecan pie, a little Texas music. And I think the president really enjoyed himself.

GONYEA: The so-called Crawford summit took place two months after the 9/11 terror attacks. In the high school gymnasium, Bush told students how Putin had been the first world leader to call him on September 11. Bush described him as a strong partner in fighting terrorism. Putin, through an interpreter, spoke of friendship and cooperation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) And be here, I can feel the will of this people - the will to cooperate with the Russian Federation, the will to cooperate with Russia. And I can assure you that the Russian people fully shares this commitment and is also committed to fully cooperating with the American people.

GONYEA: Then they took questions from students. One dealt with Afghanistan and women's rights and the then-imminent fall of the Taliban government. In his answer, Putin warned there should be no atrocities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) And we should not allow any atrocities or violations of human rights to happen.

GONYEA: Fast-forward to today and the headlines are about Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Amanda Lemmons (ph), a senior, asked a question that day. She wanted to know about Bush's travel plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMANDA BUCKNER: Have you decided on whether you're going to go to Russia or not?

BUSH: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: The president invited me, and I accepted.

BUCKNER: But the big moment for her came later, when she shook hands with Putin after the event. Reflecting now, she says time seemed to slow down.

BUCKNER: I remember - actually, I remember the color of his eyes. They were a dark, you know, deep blue. I was, like, I know he's got blue eyes.

GONYEA: And she distinctly remembers how Putin's hands felt.

BUCKNER: I don't know. They just - they were cold. Like, you know, they had a chill to them or something. You know, maybe it was too cold in the auditorium or - you know, or wherever he was, you know, at first, but yeah, his hands just - they were cold.

GONYEA: Today, her name is Amanda Buckner. She's 38 years old and says when she watches TV and sees images from Ukraine, she finds herself shaken by that previously proud moment from her youth.

BUCKNER: Did I really sit there and meet a man who just, you know, bombs, you know, innocent women and children? I can't - like, I really couldn't - I was beside myself. And it kind of - I felt really overwhelmed.

GONYEA: Mary Elise Sarotte is a Russian expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She says the summit in Crawford was certainly a high point in terms of U.S.-Russia relations after the Cold War. But she also cautions that it's an overstatement to describe the cooperation on display back then as truly collegial.

MARY ELISE SAROTTE: Both parties were getting what they wanted out of the summit, which is not the same thing as collegiality. And I think we in America, in a sense, were mistaking that for a deeper collegiality that was not, in fact, there.

GONYEA: Putin wanted to be seen as an equal. Bush wanted help confronting global terrorism. But any hope for a real friendship faded within a few years over many conflicts. Could a moment like we saw in Crawford ever come around again? Sarotte says history can certainly surprise. She cites the unexpected swiftness of the Berlin Wall coming down, for example. But on U.S.-Russia relations, she says any future cooperative moment seems very far away.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.