On Sept. 23, a week after President Bush had been "pleased to welcome my friend Vladimir Putin back to the White House," Putin took another step toward choking off political freedom in Russia.

He had already sent a message to business executives not to challenge him, by indicting oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and destroying his company with tax bills, forced sell-offs and other tactics of selective justice. Now, hours after Khodorkovsky's appeal had been denied in a comically brief process, and an eight-year jail term affirmed, Putin went after the lawyers.

A Canadian lawyer working on the case, Robert Amsterdam, was rousted from his hotel room at 1 a.m. by agents of what used to be called the KGB and was given 24 hours to leave the country. More seriously, prosecutors said they would seek to disbar Russian lawyers who had defended Khodorkovsky -- and in Putin's Russia, prosecutors get what they seek.

It's tempting to call these tactics Stalinist, but Putin is both less bloody and in some ways more clever than Stalin. He doesn't have a lot of people killed. But he understands that he doesn't have to. He can reimpose authoritarian rule without a gulag, simply by spreading fear through example.

He can fire one editor for putting a negative story on the front page and other editors get the message. He can have one or two judges dismissed without pension and other judges toe the line. Threaten a few human rights organizations, allow the murders of a few journalists to go unsolved, open a criminal investigation of the one politician who mentions challenging you in the next election, throw a few businessmen into tuberculosis-infested prison cells -- and word gets around.

Amsterdam, who has worked in many countries euphemistically known as "emerging markets," told me after leaving Russia that he has never worked in a country where the fear was so palpable, and the political space so constricted, as in Putin's domain.

The Bush administration, after some zigs and zags on Russia, seems to have developed a fairly coherent strategy regarding Russia's slide from democracy: Ignore it. The National Security Council apparatus in the White House believes that what happens inside Russia is irrelevant to the United States; that the United States can't do much to influence domestic events in any case; and that dwelling on Putin's authoritarianism would compromise other U.S. interests in bilateral relations.

Because this strategy conflicts so baldly with Bush's democracy-promotion theme, administration rhetoric sometimes sounds fiercer than this strategy would suggest. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, when she last visited Moscow, spoke frankly about democracy and human rights.

But if there is concern about the loss of freedom in Russia, it doesn't translate into policy. The administration reduces funding for democracy promotion inside Russia. It doesn't challenge Putin's standing to host the Group of Eight summit next year.

And judging by Bush's performance during Putin's most recent visit, he doesn't even feel obliged to pretend anymore. He checked off the democracy box in one sentence remarkably divorced from reality, saying that Russia "will be even a stronger partner as the reforms that President Vladimir Putin has talked about are implemented: the rule of law and the ability for people to express themselves in an open way in Russia."

Then Bush made clear that he doesn't really care whether Putin implements these reforms, which Putin has not, in fact, talked about: "And every time I visit and talk with President Putin, I -- our relationship becomes stronger, and I want to thank you for that."

You could argue that what the United States gets from that relationship is worth abandoning Russians who still dream of freedom: cooperation in securing nuclear materials, Moscow making less trouble than it might for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as Bush noted, "they've got products that we want, like energy."

In fact, though, Bush doesn't seem to be getting all that much out of the relationship, and the closing of political space in Russia does affect U.S. interests, particularly as Russia's foreign policy becomes more nationalistic and belligerent toward its neighbors.

During the Cold War, too, human rights didn't always win out in U.S. policy over the desire for natural gas or progress in arms control. But in Soviet times, U.S. leaders had an understanding of the nature of the system they were confronting and generally weren't afraid to say so. What's striking is that for the first time in decades Russia is becoming less, not more, free, and Bush can't even bring himself to acknowledge what is happening.