For the first time since President Bush said he looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and liked what he saw in the Russian leader, the United States has bluntly stated there's a limit to the friendly ties between the two nations.
Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered the message during a visit to Moscow this week, saying Russia's "managed democracy" and bullying of its neighbors could hinder the relationship. Just what the US might do if Mr. Putin doesn't shape up was left unsaid. But at least he's on notice.
At home, Putin is riding high in the polls as he heads for easy reelection next month, and can easily ignore this US jab. He's managed to gain control of most media and isolate his political opponents in what increasingly looks like an old Asian-style democracy rather than a true Western one.
Putin's belief that civil liberties should run second to security and economic concerns for now should have the West worried. It may be difficult to create a vibrant multiparty democracy if Putin's authoritarianism grows. That's especially true if he tries to amend the Constitution to let him run again in 2008.
Mr. Powell's friendly criticism is likely to need a follow-up soon.