A balancing act with Russia


Vladimir Putin isn’t Josef Stalin; he isn’t even Leonid Brezhnev. But the once, present and future Russian president’s crackdown on dissent poses a challenge for the United States familiar to students of the Cold War: How to press for greater openness in Russia while engaging with it on important international issues? The answer now, as it was then, is not to allow the need for cooperation to stifle support for democracy.

Putin, the former KGB functionary who was elected president for the third time in March — after temporarily retreating to the office of prime minister — was outraged last month when sometimes violent demonstrations overshadowed his inauguration. Since then the regime has clamped down. Last week, Putin signed legislation raising fines for unauthorized protests to $10,000 for individuals and $30,000 for organizers. On Monday, Moscow police launched raids on the homes of as many as 15 opposition figures and seized anti-government literature.

Outrageous as they are, these actions can’t compare with the oppression of the Soviet era, and Putin’s critics should be careful not to assert a false “immoral equivalence” between the old and new orders. The USSR was a totalitarian regime that brooked virtually no dissent or democracy and that enforced its authority with a vast gulag. The current government realizes it cannot suppress dissent in the same brutal fashion. For example, authorities granted a permit for a “Russia Day” demonstration Tuesday that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Moscow.


Photos: Protests in Moscow

But a difference in the degree of repression doesn’t alter the fact that the Obama administration, like its Cold War predecessors, must seek cooperation with Moscow even as it champions the rights of dissenters. In the 1960s the U.S. cooperated with the Soviet Union at the United Nations to broker an uneasy peace between Arabs and Israelis. Today, the Obama administration has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to enlist Russia in international action against Syria. Russia is also a factor in efforts to restrain nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.

Allowing for the reserve that characterizes most diplomatic pronouncements, the State Department reacted relatively strongly to the new penalties for demonstrators and the searches of dissenters’ homes. A spokeswoman said that “these measures raise serious questions about the arbitrary use of law enforcement to stifle free speech and free assembly.” President Obama, who has been pursuing a “reset” of relations with Russia, must add his voice to the condemnation.