Wrapped in a mystery

June 03, 2007

The Bad Cop chose Baltimore. His name is David Kramer, he's a deputy assistant secretary of state, and he came here to slap Russia around a little bit. This is a country, he told the Baltimore Council for Foreign Affairs last week, that engages in "outright bullying" of its neighbors and "saber-rattling" against NATO.

"Inside Russia, there has also been a worrisome slide in an anti-democratic direction," he said - against legitimate opposition, against the expansion of a civil society, and against the press. This, he said, "is inconsistent with Russia's professed commitment to building and preserving the foundations of a democratic state."

The Good Cop chose Kennebunkport, Maine, where President Bush will host Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in July at his family's seaside estate for what is surely intended to be a pleasant interlude.

Russia is fast becoming a riddle again, and in Washington and beyond, people are trying to figure out what to make of it. Russia is reasserting itself on the world stage; that much is obvious. But what's going on behind the scenery?

Already accustomed to using its vast oil and natural gas resources to blackmail various customers, Russia also appears to have a resumed a policy of assassination both at home (the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, most recently) and abroad (the ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko, killed by radiation poisoning in London). Russia has so far refused to cooperate on a solution for Kosovo. Someone in Russia - perhaps inside the Kremlin - directed a damaging cyber attack on Estonian computer servers that rang alarms all over the world.

And if Mr. Kramer's rhetoric was harsh, it came after Mr. Putin denounced American "imperialism" and not too subtly drew a parallel between the U.S. and Nazi Germany.

There wouldn't seem to be an underlying cause for a new Cold War. (The missile defense system that the administration wants to install in Eastern Europe is an unnecessary provocation, but it's not enough of one to lead to a genuine rift.) The Kremlin may have decided on a more aggressive posture to take maximum advantage of high energy prices while they last - but pushed things a little too far, which can happen in a system without checks or balances.

Also likely is that with elections coming up, Mr. Putin's men may have wanted to whip up antagonism against enemies foreign and domestic for political gain. It wouldn't be the first time, or the first place, that has ever happened.

But whatever the motivation, Russia's hostile behavior is neither appropriate nor free from risk. Mr. Kramer was right to spell that out. These are dangerous enough times as they are, and if Moscow continues to pursue a policy that leaves everyone guessing, the threat is that someone might eventually guess wrong.

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