THE POMP and circumstance of summits between world leaders usually signals the end of a process. Before the handshakes, toasts and signing ceremony, negotiators have often spent months or years hammering out agreements. But there aren’t any agreements worth celebrating right now with Russia. The relationship is clouded by disputes and conflict. So it makes sense that President Obama has decided against a summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin, who returned to office in May for a third term, has been carrying out a determined campaign to crush opposition at home, one dimension of which has been an ugly streak of anti-Americanism. He has harassed and attempted to destroy nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad, many of them for worthy civil-society goals. He pushed through parliament a ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans in a fit of pique over a U.S. law that curtailed visas for Russians identified as human rights abusers. Mr. Putin also snubbed the United States by offering temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor sought by the United States for leaking secret documents. Mr. Putin’s policies seem driven most of all by a desire to show he is standing tall. His approach has thrown the relationship with Washington into a downward spiral.

Mr. Obama had hoped for better. His goal of a “reset” with Russia enjoyed a brief flowering under President Dmitry Medvedev, leading to a new strategic arms treaty and cooperation in moving U.S. war materiel out of Afghanistan. But the “reset” looks to be dead. When Mr. Putin unleashed his assault on human rights and democracy, the administration’s reaction was all too timid, based on wishful thinking that the United States could do business with Russia despite the crackdown. Given the retreat on human rights and democracy, we think Mr. Obama is correct not to want to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Putin right now. And the relationship is strained by other disputes as well, including over Syria, missile defense and Mr. Snowden’s fate.

Skipping the summit is a tactic. A long-term strategy with Russia has to include engagement, including at the highest level, no matter how prickly and unpleasant that may be. But the engagement has to be faithful to the United States’ highest values. The bloggers and activists punished arbitrarily by Mr. Putin, the young women from the persecuted rock band Pussy Riot, the orphans whose hopes were dashed, the young Russians in urban coffeehouses who have taken to the streets in protest — all would benefit from hearing loud and clear not only that the U.S. president is skipping a summit, but that he also stands with them, that the highest aspirations of freedom and human dignity do not belong to one country or bloc of countries, but are universal and apply to all.