Over the years, each curtailment of freedom under Russian President Vladimir Putin has been met by regret and protest in the West – but also a debate about whether this might be the end of it. It's now time to end that debate.
Recent events make it clear that the rollback from pluralism continues (it's hard to argue that Russia under Boris Yeltsin ever was a full-fledged democracy). At the same time, Mr. Putin is sharpening his rhetoric and actions in his dealings with Europe and the United States.
Control of Russian television, a clampdown on dissent, and eliminated gubernatorial elections have been followed by further restrictions. Radio has now lost its independence. Anti-Kremlin political parties are being denied registration and the ability to field candidates. Protesters are beaten and arrested.
Internationally, old Soviet behavior is again on display, this time in the neighboring Baltic states – now members of the European Union and NATO. Estonia, after removing a World War II memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers, has accused Russia of a massive cyber attack on its computers. And Moscow just announced it won't repair a year-old rupture in an oil pipeline that supplies Lithuania, but will ship the oil at Lithuania's greater expense.
Meanwhile, Putin is inflaming a dispute over a planned US missile-defense system in Eastern Europe to forest-fire heights. The wisdom of the limited shield aside, he falsely claims it threatens Russia. He's accusing the US of starting an arms race, implicitly likening the US to the Third Reich and threatening to retarget missiles toward Europe.
There's more, but really, isn't this enough to disclaim Putin's pronouncement that he's a "pure democrat," as he told reporters before this week's G-8 summit? The Bush administration is no longer internally split over how to interpret Russia, as it was a year ago. Europe, too, has its eyes open wider. Moscow's stepped-up antics are driving European and American leaders together – rather than dividing them, as last year.
So how should the West react to this retrograde Russia?
Last week, David Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of State, summed up US-Russia policy as "cooperate wherever we can; push back wherever we have to." That is not essentially different from the past – and can't be.
Russia is just too important – as an energy supplier, a pressure partner against a nuclear Iran, and an ally in the war on terrorism – for the West to be in only push-back mode. That helps explain President Bush's unusual invitation to Putin to visit the Bush Maine compound in July.
But when the West does push back, its protests and actions should relate to specific wrongs, such as the murder of a prominent Russian journalist or the bizarre killing of a former KGB spy in Britain.
The West should also understand that what's going on in Russia is not merely a reaction against the chaos of the Yeltsin years, or against NATO's eastward expansion. It's also driven by Russian politics – upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, in which the strategy is to demonize internal and external enemies to legitimize the leadership (just as in Soviet days).
Realizing that much of the caustic rhetoric is for internal theater should allow the West to be temperate in response, and it has been. Why add more drama to a scene that would only prolong this act?