There Go the Russians

President Bush has given the cowboy-boot to dozens of Russian diplomats in retaliation for Moscow's complicity in the spying case of US counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen.

This sends a strong message that the United States will not tolerate the "old" Russia, the one of Soviet days or even imperial Russia. And that message goes directly to Vladimir Putin.

He, after all, has a picture of Peter the Great hanging in his office, and his advisers are generally his colleagues from the former KGB. His mentor was master spy Yuri Andropov.

That Moscow still spies on a massive scale reflects its inability to become a prosperous democracy in the decade since the cold war. The old ways look like they're the only ways.

But Mr. Bush's action also signals a shift from the Clinton administration, which carefully tried to work with Russia to reduce nuclear risks and bolster its economy.

That cozy engagement didn't win many friends nor help Russia reform much. Instead, when Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, he said he wanted to re-create "a great, powerful, and mighty state," one that "commands respect in the world."

Bush may be starting a policy of malign neglect that downgrades Russia in US eyes because it's really not a great power anymore. That may suit American interests, but it upsets European allies who live next to Russia and don't want to hear the bear growl.

Russia deserves respect, even if it does spy, but Bush is right that the days of coddling a fallen giant are over.

Moscow doesn't help win much US respect by selling arms to Iran or finishing a nuclear power plant there.

The "new" Russia now needs to find itself largely on its own.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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