"THE LEADERS of the West must recognize that our current strategy towards Russia is failing." So bluntly begins an open letter released last week by 115 European and American leaders, ranging from former presidents and prime ministers to sitting Republican and Democratic senators. At a time when Western governments are responding slowly, if at all, to the growing authoritarianism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the letter offers a wake-up call -- one that ought to get the attention both of those governments and of Mr. Putin.
The statement summarizes what now is the most common view about Mr. Putin's government on both sides of the Atlantic: that it has "systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia's political parties." Mr. Putin's foreign policy, the letter adds, "is increasingly marked by a threatening attitude towards Russia's neighbors and Europe's energy security, the return of rhetoric of militarism and empire, and by a refusal to comply with Russia's international treaty obligations." In sum, it says, "In all aspects of Russian political life, the instruments of state power appear to be being rebuilt and the dominance of the security services to grow."
This analysis is shared by a remarkably diverse range of respected people: from former dissident and Czech president Vaclav Havel to former prime ministers of Sweden and Italy and the current head of the German Green Party; from Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright; from liberal policymakers at the Brookings Institution to their counterparts at the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Their assessment of their own governments is harsh. "Western leaders," they say, "continue to embrace President Putin in the face of growing evidence that his country is moving in the wrong direction and that his strategy for fighting terrorism is producing less and less freedom."
What is to be done? The letter establishes some basic principles. Western governments must "rethink how and to what extent we engage with Putin's Russia," and must "put ourselves unambiguously on the side of democratic forces." Above all, leaders must drop the double standard by which they insist on democratic progress in the Middle East while ignoring its reversal in Eurasia. "We must speak the truth about what is happening in Russia," say these leaders. So they have done; were the Bush administration to follow their example, Mr. Putin might listen.