Turning up the heat

February 25, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH said the right things in defense of democracy when he met yesterday with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and this elicited a declaration by the frighteningly autocratic Kremlin chief that democracy has his absolute support. Now what?

The reality is that American influence in Russia is at a lower point than at any time since the crack-up of the Soviet Union. In part, this is because the Bush administration paid scant attention to Russia during its first term. In return for significant Russian assistance in the war in Afghanistan in 2001, Washington looked the other way on Chechnya and a host of other issues.

But a much more important development has been the wealth that has poured into Russia, an oil exporter, because of petroleum prices that were kicked into the stratosphere by the American war in Iraq and the insatiable American demand for oil at home (among a few other factors). Late last month, Russia paid off the last of its debts to the International Monetary Fund with a $3.3 billion installment, removing a significant lever of influence. Within the past week, it made payments totaling $2.2 billion against the old Soviet debt it had acquired in 1991.

Russian companies, too, are awash with cash. One consequence is that Moscow is no longer so interested in foreign investment, and thus another lever falls into disuse.

Here's an example of how this plays out: In the early 1990s, Russia was prodded by the West into withdrawing its troops from the Baltic republics. In 1999, it promised a pull-out from Georgia, but today, Russian troops are still there and no amount of Western prodding can get them to leave; Russia now claims it never agreed to pull them back.

Concern about the Russian retreat from democracy under Mr. Putin has been growing in the West, but a milestone of sorts was passed with the recent Ukrainian election. Russia spectacularly backed the candidate who held out the promise of a thuggish regime that would thumb its nose at the law and prey on its own people - a regime, in short, like the one in the Kremlin. That candidate lost (on the second try), and this defeat for Mr. Putin raises the plausible fear that Russia will pull back into self-imposed isolation. A Russia that is hostile to the rest of the world - and that still has nuclear arms and that still carries on a war in the Caucasus guaranteed to inflame Islamist passions - would be a formidable problem.

Mr. Putin says it won't happen. Mr. Bush's job is to push his counterpart on the question of democracy - the Ukrainian elections having shown that people in the post-Soviet world are as eager for it as anyone - without pushing him away. The expulsion of Russia from the Group of Eight nations, which some have proposed, would be merely symbolic and wholly counterproductive.

A better idea would be for the United States to act in concert with Europe - which as a major customer of Russian natural gas does still wield some influence - and maintain constant and steady pressure to re-establish democratic participation, freedom of the press and the rule of law throughout the world's largest country.

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