When leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries gather in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday for their regular summit, they will confront several pressing issues. Ukrainian and Georgian aspirations for membership in the alliance is one. Promoting stability in Afghanistan and other far-flung hot spots is another.
But missing from the agenda is the one issue that is staring the allies right in the face, but needs to be addressed urgently: What to do with Russia.
Outgoing President Vladimir Putin is doing a big favor to the alliance by accepting its leaders' invitation to Bucharest. His sheer presence will put Russia on the agenda. How will the allies respond?
Speaking at last year's high-level security conference in Munich, Mr. Putin threw down the gauntlet to the assembled dignitaries, threatening a new cold war if the West didn't pay closer attention to Russia and its interests.
Since then, he and other Russian officials have repeatedly threatened retribution against Poland and the Czech Republic for participating in US missile defense plans; against Ukraine and Georgia for pursuing NATO membership; and against European Union and NATO members for recognizing Kosovo's independence.
Putin's speeches have played well in Russia. The Russian public likes his assertive tone, according to polling data. In Europe, both old and new, his words have raised fears of Russian revanchism. This may be good for European and trans-atlantic solidarity, but it is not enough.
Despite Putin's broadsides against NATO and various US and European initiatives, none of the leaders from either side of the Atlantic has taken up his rhetorical challenge. His speeches have gone unanswered, ceding the most important audience of all – the Russian people – to Putin.
The very fact that the majority of Russian people approve of Putin's foreign policy should be alarming to Western leaders. In 2007, 60 percent of Russians agreed that "the greatest threat to Russian security" came from US missile defense deployment in countries neighboring Russia, and only 8 percent thought it was posed by Iranian nuclear weapons.
If that is not cause for alarm, what is? And this is at the time when more Russians travel abroad, surf the Web, and have unimpeded access to the world of ideas than ever before.
By welcoming Putin to Bucharest, NATO leaders should welcome the Russian people and engage them with a candid and clear message.
They should reiterate NATO's openness to cooperation with Russia and lack of ill will toward it. They should stress that NATO's enlargement is not guided from its headquarters in Brussels, but is driven by the nations aspiring to join the alliance. They should also be clear that this is an alliance that rests on shared values, but that no nation is forced to embrace them or join NATO if it lacks the will to do so.
Russia can devise its own form of government, but its current government's strict balance-of-power approach to foreign affairs is likely to make it less, not more, compatible with the rest of Europe and the United States.
Alliance leaders also ought to remind the people of Russia that Putin's record in the past eight years in office looks different from outside Russia than from inside.
True, the Russian economy has grown rapidly, but on average Russian males are still not expected to live past 60.
True, Putin has reined in the handful of oligarchs who ran Russia under his predecessor, but Russia ranked 143rd in Transparency International's global Corruption Perceptions Index in 2007.
True, Russia has flexed its military muscle and engaged in pipeline diplomacy to remind Europe that it holds keys to its gas supply. Has this made Russia more feared in Europe and raised concerns about its reliability as a supplier? Yes. But has it made Russia more popular, respected, or trusted? No.
The Russian people need to be told over the heads of their leaders that they are free to decide their own fate without foreign interference and can devise their own form of democracy or autocracy as they see fit. But in deciding their own fate, they should have all facts at their disposal and should assess their own record and that of their neighbors and partners in Europe on that basis.
The sooner they are presented with those facts the better are the prospects for a meaningful dialogue between NATO and Russia about their differences and challenges. By shaping their overdue response to Putin, NATO leaders will begin to tackle the question of what to do with Russia.
A clear message to Putin and, more important, to the people of Russia about NATO's view of them and their country will be a big step toward making the Bucharest summit a success.