Crumbling Before Putin

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 19, 2006

Vladimir Putin must wait another month before he can play the coveted role of host to the world's most powerful democratic leaders at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg. But already the Russian president appears close to accomplishing his principal objective: preventing a serious response by the G-8 to his autocratic domestic policies and imperialist bullying of neighbors.

A couple of months ago Western officials were confidently promising that Putin would not be allowed to strut among the elected presidents and prime ministers in St. Petersburg without being reminded that he is not their political peer. At the insistence of the Bush administration, Russia's interventions in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova -- former Soviet republics trying to establish themselves as independent democracies -- were placed on the agenda of G-8 preparatory meetings. U.S. diplomats pressured NATO to allow the first steps toward membership this spring for Georgia and Ukraine.

In May, Vice President Cheney delivered a tough speech spelling out the case against Putin: his embrace of dictators in Belarus and Uzbekistan, his use of energy supplies as a tool of political blackmail, his elimination of independent voices in Russia. President Bush agreed in principle to visit Kiev before St. Petersburg, in order to bolster Ukraine's beleaguered pro-Western democrats.

In the past few weeks, however, the Western will to stand up to Putin has crumbled. At a NATO ministerial meeting 10 days ago, France and several other European governments rejected U.S. talk of an "enhanced dialogue" with Georgia or a membership action plan for Ukraine -- even as Russian-backed demonstrations in the Ukrainian Crimea forced NATO to withdraw U.S. Marines who had deployed there for an exercise. The White House then announced the cancellation of Bush's visit to Ukraine, largely because of the inability of the pro-Western parties to agree on a new government.

Cheney's speech, meanwhile, produced a backlash not just from Moscow but also in Western Europe, where the vice president was roundly criticized as too provocative. As for Russian neo-imperialism: Administration officials say they are still seeking to put Georgia and Moldova on the agenda of a pre-summit foreign ministers' meeting next week, but they don't expect to succeed. "We're dead in the water," says Bruce Jackson, a conservative close to many in the administration who heads the Project on Transitional Democracies. "Russia is playing a more aggressive, thought-out game, and they are outplaying us."

Putin's strongest move was his agreement to participate in a pending Western bid to freeze Iran's nuclear program. In exchange for its support Russia won the postponement of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have ordered an end to the program; it also delayed a looming rift between Russia and the West over sanctions against Tehran. As long as Moscow is nominally on board with its most important foreign policy initiative, the Bush administration is constrained from pressing the issues raised by Cheney -- though officials insist that they haven't been dropped.

European policymakers don't suffer such scruples. In Washington and in Brussels, they are arguing straightforwardly that Putin's noxious policies should be tolerated -- not just because of Iran but also because of Russia's importance as an energy supplier. Brussels has been intimidated: At a meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in late May, Putin flatly rejected European Union appeals that Russia loosen its stranglehold on pipelines carrying gas and oil to Europe and allow greater European investment in Russian fields. Last week his government confirmed that Western companies will be allowed only minority stakes in all but the smallest projects.

Putin's intransigence has produced a response that a U.S. official summed up in one word: "appeasement." A senior European official explained the logic to me this way: For the foreseeable future, European economies will depend on Russian energy. But that energy won't be available unless Russia makes huge new investments in the coming years and chooses to continue marketing its oil and gas in Europe, rather than China. "That means we have no choice but to support a powerful center in Moscow," the official said, "so that the necessary investments are made and the supplies are available to us."

Faced with such European fecklessness, U.S. officials appear to have resigned themselves to a summit at which Putin will portray himself as ruler of a resurgent superpower. Georgians and Moldovans will watch Western leaders toast Putin while the Russian boycotts of their exports and promotion of separatism in their countries go undiscussed. Russian democrats and independent civil society groups will, if they are lucky, content themselves with meeting mid-level U.S. officials in Moscow. And viewers in the rest of the world might understandably ask, does the Group of Eight exist to serve Russia? Or is there some other purpose?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company