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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

We Must be Firm with Putin

An editorial in the Washington Post calls for the West to remain firm in dealing with the neo-Soviet Union:

In the past few days, the anti-Western rhetoric of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which had been rising in pitch for several months, has reached Soviet levels of shrillness. He accused the U.S. of “imperialism” and threatened to target Europe with new Russian weapons. In an interview with foreign journalists, he cynically mocked Western democracy, saying that U.S. “torture, homelessness, (and) Guantanamo” and Europe’s “harsh treatment of demonstrators” have left him as the only “absolute and pure democrat” in the world.

If the Cold War were still on, Western leaders would probably find it relatively easy to rebuff such barbs at the summit of industrialized democracies in northern Germany. But this is a different era, and Putin himself attended the summit, a member of a club – the Group of Eight – in which he clearly doesn’t belong. His presence should be a reminder of how much has gone wrong in Moscow since the group decided in 1998 to offer Russia membership in the hope that it was evolving into a liberal democracy. It should also give them the opportunity to make clear to Putin that his belligerence will not return his country to great-power status.

It’s hard to know the real objective of Putin’s bombast. In recent days the Kremlin’s tone has become so propagandistic that some observers believe it is driven entirely by domestic politics. Putin is due to step down as president in nine months; though he has engineered the political system to “elect” whomever he chooses, his impending departure seems to have touched off power struggles.

Putin may be hoping to create rifts between European governments and the U.S., or between Western Europe and former members of the Soviet bloc that have joined NATO and the European Union. That would explain his insistence that the Bush administration’s plan to locate a small missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic poses a critical threat to Russia, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The dilemma for the West is that Putin continues to be cooperative on a handful of crucial issues, including the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But the West cannot afford to respond to Putin’s bluster with appeasement. The missile defense initiative should proceed or not on its own merits; outreach by NATO and the EU to neighbors suffering from Russian bullying should be accelerated, not stopped. Support for independent civil society and human rights groups in Russia should be increased – not cut, as in the administration’s budget proposal for next year. Putin should get the clear message that repression at home and Soviet-style diplomacy abroad will make his country less rather than more influential in the 21st-century world.

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