Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush first met Russian President Vladimir Putin, he looked into his eyes and said he could trust him.

About the same time, John McCain said, "When I look into his eyes, I see a K, a G and a B" -- the acronym of the Soviet Union's Stalinist secret police for whom torture and murder was a form of recreation.

McCain never trusted Putin. He believed the former KGB agent neither supported nor accepted the independence movement that swept across Eastern Europe when the Evil Empire fell apart and ended up on the ash heap of history. When others were supporting Putin's bid for membership in the exclusive G-8 club of economic powers, McCain opposed it.

Events have proven McCain right from the beginning. Putin has crushed dissent in Russia, dismantled a free press, thrown corporate executives in prison on trumped-up state charges, took control of the country's oil and gas industry, and eliminated anyone who got in his way. Now he appears to be bent on reconstructing the old Soviet Union through military might.

Last week, he sent troops, tanks and bombers into neighboring Georgia (an ancient country seized by the Red Army in 1922) on the preposterous pretext of saving Ossetia, a breakaway province where Georgia's army was attempting to quell a separatist uprising.

Before the weekend was over, Putin had sent Russian forces, bearing the old Soviet Union flag, into the Abkhazia region and then deeper into Georgia, bombing cities and towns (2,000 were killed in South Ossetia alone) and instituting a naval blockade on Georgia's Black Sea coastline.

By Tuesday, Georgian officials feared the Russian army was moving toward Tbilisi, its capital, threatening to topple the government. Then, in a deal being negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both sides agreed to pull back their troops, leaving the Russians occupying the two disputed provinces as so-called "peacekeepers" -- an untenable situation that gives Russia de-facto control over sovereign Georgian territory.

There is little doubt now -- if there ever was -- who is running Russia, and it isn't the figurehead President Dmitry Medvedev. Prime Minister Putin has taken control of the military invasion as its commander in chief.

Eastern European countries were left wondering whether they were Russia's next targets. European leaders faced their deadliest crisis since the Cold War. President Bush harshly condemned the attack on the pro-American nation, while administration officials said it marked a return to the days of Soviet-style aggression.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.