The Next Bush Project: Saving Russia From Itself

David Satter
The Wall Street Journal

The question that hangs over tomorrow's summit meeting between George Bush and Vladimir Putin in Bratislava is whether the U.S. is prepared to continue to accept the steady dismantling of democracy in Russia. On Monday, Mr. Bush indicated that the policy is about to change. His warning in Brussels that Russia must commit itself to democracy and the rule of law was significant because, in the past, he has avoided public criticism of Russia in the belief that a passive U.S. attitude toward Russia's increasingly undemocratic practices was essential to guarantee Russia's cooperation in the war on terror.

Recent events, however, including Mr. Putin's open embrace of Iran's nuclear ambitions, may have convinced the administration that this justification is wearing thin. In fact, whether self-censorship was ever necessary is open to doubt. Russia's help in the war against the Taliban removed a threat to Russia itself. It is hard to imagine a situation in which Russia would not have backed an attempt to destroy the Taliban. At the same time, America's tolerant attitude toward Russian human rights abuses led Mr. Putin to assume that he could pursue his authoritarian internal policies without cost. It was faith that Mr. Bush would give him a free hand that inspired Mr. Putin virtually to campaign for Mr. Bush's re-election.

The problem is that Mr. Putin's drive toward authoritarianism is itself transforming relations between Russia and the West. What has emerged in Russia is a bureaucratic regime dominated by former KGB agents. Such a regime is not a reliable, strategic ally of the U.S. because it is expansionist, fosters massive corruption and pursues internal policies that cannot but alienate civil society in the West.

Russia's expansionism is a direct result of Mr. Putin's "reforms." Having neutralized independent centers of power, he has no effective opponents. He also has no effective supporters except persons connected to the army, FSB and police -- the elements that are the most hostile to the West and the most adamant in supporting efforts by Russia to dominate the former Soviet space. A chilling example of what this means were conversations captured on audiotape by the Ukrainian secret service implicating FSB officers in the attempted poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko.

Massive corruption also undermines strategic cooperation. In 2002, the U.S. tried to convince Russia to "reconsider" cooperation with Iran. It offered military and space cooperation and approval for the storage in Russia of foreign nuclear waste if Russia would cut off its trade with Tehran in arms and nuclear technology. The deal was rejected because a transparent deal with the U.S. cannot produce the scams and payoffs that are possible in a nontransparent deal with a rogue state, many of which benefit Kremlin officials.

Mr. Putin's authoritarianism creates tension between Russia and the West because his policies are unacceptable to Western society. Fixed elections, a controlled press, and the readiness to squander lives in hostage situations will anger Western public opinion, regardless of the attitude of political leaders. Russians typically then respond with blanket condemnations of the West.

Under these circumstances, the U.S. needs to combat Mr. Putin's authoritarianism not least of all to counteract tendencies that, in the long run, will make it impossible for Russia to become a strategic ally. One area where the U.S. can have influence is in support for the rule of law. Fear has returned to Russia in part because selective prosecution is being used to eliminate opponents of the regime.

The best known case is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos, who was arrested more than a year ago and charged with tax avoidance and fraud. He was incriminated for maneuvers that allowed him to buy the state's share in a fertilizer plant for a fraction of its real value. The other oligarchs made their fortunes with the help of similar maneuvers and, if the law were applied equally, could be prosecuted on the same grounds. The difference is that Mr. Khodorkovsky, having amassed wealth, began to work for political pluralism, becoming a major supporter of opposition political parties. It was this and not any economic crimes that led to his demise.

Another area in which the U.S. needs to make clear its opposition is Mr. Putin's undermining of democratic institutions. Formerly elected governors have been converted into appointed officials -- a clear violation of the constitution. Insofar as the regime already controls the executive branch, the State Duma and the judiciary, the appointment of governors, who, in turn, will appoint mayors and district officials, will eliminate what little political pluralism in Russia still exists.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the U.S. should exert pressure for a political settlement in Chechnya. In the 10 years since Russia launched the First Chechen War, anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 persons have died in Chechnya. The Russians have also murdered and kidnapped thousands of Chechens in security sweeps. Bringing an end to the war is, at least in theory, possible. The cease-fire announced this month by Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has held. His representatives abroad have endorsed peace plans that do not even insist on full independence for Chechnya but rather provide for a form of autonomy. The Chechen resistance long ago became a battle not for territory but for self-respect. Active U.S. support for a political settlement in Chechnya can help to prevent the Chechens from becoming a constituent part of international Islamic terrorism with serious consequences not only for Russia but for the U.S.

The U.S. does have influence in Russia, particularly when its position is linked to overarching values. In a poll taken in January, 2004, 75% of the Russian respondents said they wanted Russia to be an ally or friend of the West. Fewer than 3% thought that the West was an enemy of Russia. As the Putin regime steadily isolates itself from society, rendering itself, at the same time, progressively more unstable, it is the American obligation to help reinforce the democratic instincts of the 75%. The result could ultimately be to save Russia for the Western alliance, and to save Russia from itself.

Mr. Satter, affiliated with the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins, is the author of "Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State" (Yale, 2003).