Message for Mr. Putin

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

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 United States of "imperialism" and "diktat" 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 today's summit of industrialized democracies in northern Germany. But this is a different era, and Mr. Putin himself will attend the summit, a member of a club -- the Group of Eight -- in which he clearly doesn't belong. His presence should remind the other seven members of how much has gone wrong in Moscow since they 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 Mr. Putin that his belligerence will not return his country to great-power status.

It's hard to know the real objective of Mr. Putin's bombast. In recent days the Kremlin's tone has become so blatantly propagandistic that some observers believe it is driven entirely by domestic politics. Mr. 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 in the corrupt clique around him, as well as waves of paranoia about domestic and foreign opponents.

Mr. Putin may be hoping, however, to create rifts between European governments and the United States, 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. If so, the effort is beginning to backfire, as Mr. Putin himself seemed to acknowledge in his latest interview. Oddly, he suggested that the U.S. initiative had been launched precisely to provoke Russia's reaction and thus unite the West against Moscow.

The dilemma for the West is that Mr. Putin continues to be cooperative on a handful of crucial issues, including the effort to stop Iran's nuclear program. That's why President Bush still insists on calling the Russian president "Vladimir" and has invited him to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport next month. Pragmatic engagement makes sense so long as it continues to get results. Two crucial tests will be Russia's posture on a new U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran and a Security Council vote on independence for Kosovo.

But the West cannot afford to respond to Mr. Putin's bluster with appeasement. The missile defense initiative should proceed or not on its own merits (some legitimate questions have been raised by NATO members and Congress); outreach by NATO and the European Union 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. Mr. 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.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company