Reining in Putin isn't so easy
I think we both agree, Andrew, that tossing Russia out of the G-8 and blocking the country's ascension to the WTO would likely be counterproductive. I'll go out on a limb and predict that, even in the event of a John McCain presidency, calls for such punitive measures will be quickly forgotten, as they have been in the past. Recall that when the independent television channel NTV was neutered by the Kremlin in 2001, the Washington Post (among others) editorialized in favor of booting Russia from the G-8, which goes to show just how few options we have in attempting to affect change.
Where we differ, Andrew, is in our opinion of just what, if any, positive effects membership in such institutions will have on Russia's desire to exert influence on former Soviet member states or respect for democracy at home. Nor am I averse -- in theory, anyway -- to making membership in such international organizations contingent upon good behavior. We have a limited diplomatic tool kit in situations like this, so persuading other G-8 countries to join in threatening punishment is, at the very least, worth considering. (With all of the excitement surrounding his VP pick, it went almost completely unnoticed that Barack Obama echoed McCain's hawkish response to the Kremlin by calling for "a review" of Russia's WTO bid.)
Besides, such actions tend not to succeed in forcing political change. In 1997, Belarus was suspended from the Council of Europe for, among other problems, constantly rigging elections in favor of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. (I know, I know, Belarus is not an economic or military powerhouse, but you see where I am going.) And while they are hardly historical analogues, I cannot help thinking of America's stubborn insistence on maintaining an embargo on Cuba despite the policy's indisputable failure in provoking political change. Many classical liberals once thought that free trade was the key to undermining authoritarian governments. While I still believe that it is the fundamental component to liberalization, countries like China and Russia have certainly challenged these assumptions, though I still greatly favor economic engagement over economic isolation.
As the Economist's Putin-loathing Russia correspondent Edward Lucas rightly points out, "Russia's newfound wealth means that outside economic pressure on the Kremlin is minimal." And the comments of Vladislav Reznik, chairman of the State Duma Financial Markets Committee, are unfortunately correct: "We are a big economy today. Whether they like it or not, we have to be reckoned with." And any economic pressures applied to Russia would be bidirectional, likely causing harm to the U.S. economy. As Yevgeny Fyodorov, chairman of the Duma's Economic Policy and Entrepreneurship Committee, told the Moscow Times, "It's an absolute certainty that the Americans won't [impose any sanctions] because they themselves would suffer."
Besides, expelling Russia from the G-8, to crib from former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, is an "impossibility," especially when such an action couldn't be accomplished without the acquiescence of our European allies. And as former EU commissioner for external relations Chris Patten recently wrote, "Russia knows that when it comes to conducting a serious foreign and security policy, Europe is all mouth." In other words, if America limits its talks of retribution only to expulsion from the G-8, which Moscow knows will never happen, this will only weaken Washington's position.
The WTO is a slightly different matter. You rightly point out, Andrew, that Russia would "love" be invited in, despite Putin's recent comments to the contrary. This, you say, would "of course" influence Russian behavior. I am more skeptical, mindful of the fact that, as you mention, the West's initial embrace of Putin has done nothing to control his illiberal instincts.
You also write that membership in the WTO comes with certain responsibilities, which you hope Russia would then abide by. But membership in the G-8 demands similar democratic responsibilities. Take a look at the first statement of the 2007 Declaration of G-8 Foreign Ministers on the Rule of Law: "We, the Foreign Ministers of the G-8, reaffirm that the rule of law is among the core principles on which we build our partnership and our efforts to promote lasting peace, security, democracy and human rights as well as sustainable development worldwide." Well, to extend your baseball analogy, Russia's batting .000 here.
Finally, it's important to note, as you have, that the West helped to build Putin into a world-class leader. The failure to understand just what kind of Russian future Putin represented seems baffling in hindsight, though, in the case of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who matriculated from the chancellery to a position at Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, I think I'm starting to understand.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason magazine.