ON MONDAY Vladimir Putin's prosecutors brought criminal charges against the director of a small television station that has been a last-ditch refuge for independent journalists driven out of the NTV network this year. On Tuesday, his police raided the offices of Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station that is the final remnant of the NTV empire not yet crushed or taken over by Mr. Putin's cronies. While this was going on, Mr. Putin himself was delivering another defiant and dissembling statement about Chechnya, declaring in front of French President Jacques Chirac that the persistent Chechen resistance to his brutal military campaign there was the work of "foreign mercenaries who have large quantities of heroin." In New York, meanwhile, Mr. Putin's ambassador was single-handedly blocking a revamping of U.N. sanctions against Iraq, thwarting the Bush administration's high-profile attempt to stop the rehabilitation of Saddam Hussein.
We're still hoping to get that glimpse of Mr. Putin's soul that President Bush talked about last month -- the one that convinced him that the Russian president "is a straightforward, honest man" and "a remarkable leader" whom his administration can trust. In the absence of such insight, we must rely on Mr. Putin's public acts -- which continue to be those of a budding autocrat who is systematically liquidating his country's free press, responding to restless minorities with lies and dirty war and seeking to restore Russian influence in the world by supporting and encouraging such enemies of the United States as Iraq.
From Mr. Putin's point of view, these various campaigns are going better than ever; since his meeting with Mr. Bush and the president's effusive endorsement, Western objections to his regime and its tactics have all but died away. Take Mr. Chirac, whose relatively strong criticism of Mr. Putin's invasion of Chechnya chilled Franco-Russian relations through much of last year. The Russian president was anything but subtle in his handling of Mr. Chirac's visit to Moscow this week, dispatching his police to the Echo of Moscow studios before the station was due to interview the French leader, and making his preposterous pronouncement about Chechnya as Mr. Chirac stood by his side. Yet Mr. Chirac -- evidently eager not to be bested by Washington in the romancing of Mr. Putin -- took his humiliation well; rather than criticize the raid on Echo of Moscow or Mr. Putin's actions in Chechnya, he instead stressed the "considerable convergence" the French and Russian governments were achieving.
Mr. Bush came into office pledging not to be seduced by a Kremlin leader, in the way he charged President Clinton had been taken in by Boris Yeltsin. Prior to his first meeting with Mr. Putin, his advisers claimed that the president cared about issues such as press freedom, Chechnya and Moscow's support for rogue nations and would tell Mr. Putin that U.S.-Russian relations would depend on them. The administration insists that it is not prepared to trade tolerance for Mr. Putin's destruction of Chechnya and Russian democracy for the Kremlin's strategic cooperation on missile defense.
Mr. Bush himself told an interviewer last week that his regard for Mr. Putin would not last if "he proves otherwise." So Mr. Putin's behavior during the weeks since the summit raises a question: Will President Bush respond?