THE BOLDNESS of Vladimir Putin's assault on Russian democracy in the past few days ought to have been galvanizing to a U.S. president who has made the defense of freedom the rhetorical centerpiece of his foreign policy. Instead, the abrupt announcement by the Russian president that he intended to combat terrorism by abolishing elections for governors, and eliminating local elections for individual members of parliament, has been greeted with confused, contradictory and timid murmurings from the State Department and the White House. Distressed Russian politicians described Mr. Putin's act as "a constitutional coup d'état" and "a step toward dictatorship." Yet not until yesterday did Secretary of State Colin L. Powell speak out, and then only to understate the obvious: Russia, he observed, "is pulling back on some of the democratic reforms."
Why the pulled punches? Surely it cannot be because there still is room to debate where Mr. Putin is leading his country. For years some Russia watchers in the Bush administration insisted on giving the former KGB officer the benefit of the doubt as he moved to restrict freedom of the press, centralize authority in the Kremlin, and jail or exile private businessmen who failed to kowtow to him. Just a year ago, President Bush himself gave Mr. Putin dubious credit for a "vision for Russia" as "a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive." Since then Mr. Putin has blatantly manipulated elections for the Russian parliament as well as his own reelection and trampled on the rule of law in his relentless prosecution of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Now he would strip Russia's 89 provinces and regions of their right to choose their own leaders, and appoint the governors himself.
Mr. Bush, however, has never publicly revised his evaluation of Mr. Putin's leadership. Instead, his administration has continued to cast the Russian president mainly as a comrade in the war on terrorism. After the barbaric slaughter of children by terrorists at a school in the city of Beslan nearly two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld explicitly connected Mr. Putin's relentless war against the separatist republic of Chechnya with the U.S. campaign in Iraq. "The civilized world has to stay on the offensive," he said, "and that's exactly what the coalition is doing." On Monday Vice President Cheney seconded this notion, even as an unnamed White House official told the New York Times that Mr. Putin's abolition of elections was "a domestic matter for the Russian people."
Like a number of dictators around the world, Mr. Putin is learning that Mr. Bush's passion for delivering speeches about freedom doesn't mean he is willing to defend it in practice. Were he to do so, he would begin by issuing a statement as clear as that delivered yesterday by Democrat John F. Kerry. Mr. Kerry began by vowing to "work constructively with Russia" against terrorism, and then added: "I remain deeply concerned about President Putin's ongoing moves to limit democratic freedoms and further centralize power. Russia will be a much more effective partner in the war on terror if its government is transparent, open to criticism, respectful of the rule of law and protects the human rights of its citizens, including those in Chechnya. Simply looking the other way -- as the Bush administration has done -- is not in the national security interest of the United States or Russia."