PRESIDENT OBAMA is preparing to reach out once again to Russian ruler Vladimir Putin in the hope of striking a new agreement to reduce nuclear arms. The president mentioned the initiative in his State of the Union address; according to a senior Russian legislator, national security adviser Thomas Donilon will soon travel to Moscow with a letter outlining Mr. Obama’s ideas. The reduction of nuclear stockpiles is a top priority of this president and a worthy one. But what’s striking about Mr. Obama’s strategy is its seeming detachment from the reality of how Mr. Putin has governed Russia since his return to the presidency last year.
Mr. Obama’s first nuclear-arms agreement with Mr. Putin, in 2010, came about in the context of a warming of U.S.-Russian relations. The new proposal will hit Moscow in the middle of a Putin-directed campaign against both his domestic political opposition and the United States, which in his mind are linked. In recent months Mr. Putin has expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development, placed new restrictions on local nonprofit organizations receiving foreign funds, bumped U.S.-funded Radio Liberty from domestic airwaves and overseen a propaganda campaign that accuses the United States of orchestrating anti-government demonstrations.
The regime, meanwhile, has steadily escalated a campaign against the leaders of the peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted in Russia in late 2011. For Russians, the cynical tactics are bone-wearyingly familiar: Transparently trumped-up criminal cases are being brought against the activists, with the promise of lengthy prison terms. Alexei Navalny, the founder of an anti-corruption organization, has himself been charged with corruption. Last week leftist firebrand Sergei Udaltsov was placed under house arrest ahead of his upcoming trial on charges of organizing an anti-Putin rally in May.
Some Russian analysts believe that the regime is well on its way to crushing the opposition movement, which attracted the support of much of the urban middle class. Others regard the repression as the death spasms of an exhausted autocracy. “There are classical criteria of a dying regime and its key signs are evident in Russia,” Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office wrote recently, citing “the Kremlin’s inability either to preserve the status quo or begin changes.” Either side might be right, though our bet is with Ms. Shevtsova.
What’s strange is that the Obama administration would seek to undertake a major new piece of business with Mr. Putin without regard for this ugly climate. New U.S.-Russian nuclear warhead reductions, while welcome, are hardly urgent: The big challenges of nuclear weapons lie elsewhere in the world. At the same time, the survival of a pro-democracy movement in Russia is an important and pressing U.S. interest, just as Mr. Putin’s growing hostility to the United States threatens U.S. initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere. Maybe offering Mr. Putin a new nuclear weapons deal is the best way to counter his noxious policies — but it is hard to see how.