- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2000

Russia wants a strong leader. After suffering through economic turmoil and a string of terrorist attacks, Russians are eager to elect on March 26 a president who will restore stability and redeem the country's dignity. Acting President Vladimir Putin has effectively convinced the Russians he is that ruler.

The United States, meanwhile, appears similarly optimistic regarding Mr. Putin. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said earlier this year that Mr. Putin "seems determined to move reform forward," and earlier this month President Bill Clinton said Mr. Putin is "obviously intelligent, he's highly motivated." This confidence in Mr. Putin is bewildering. Since taking the helm at the beginning of the year, Mr. Putin has ruled with genocidal brutality and has strong-armed democratic institutions. He is unlikely to provide Russia with the brand of strength it needs and has forged a tenuous friendship with the West.

On his first night as acting president, reported Insight magazine, Mr. Putin flew with his wife to Chechnya, uncorked a bottle of champagne aboard an army helicopter and handed out skinning knives with his name engraved on them to the troops. The gesture was apropos, since the war on Chechnya, which Mr. Putin launched after becoming prime minister in September, has been notable for its barbaric use of force in civilian areas. It is difficult to see why the White House would see fit to praise Mr. Putin in light of Russia's brutal attack on the region.

The Chechen conflict has, in turn, highlighted Mr. Putin's lack of respect for the freedom of the press. This disregard has been well-summarized by the Kremlin's treatment and the mysterious disappearance of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, who had aggressively reported on Russian atrocities in the conflict. Russian officials initially said that Mr. Babitsky was detained for lacking proper press accreditation and for suspected collaboration with Chechen terrorists. The Kremlin claims it then released Mr. Babitsky with his consent to Chechen terrorists, but he has not been heard of since he appeared briefly on a videotape allegedly made on Feb. 6.

Also disconcerting is a law which Mr. Putin endorsed on Jan. 5 which gives Russia's intelligence agencies real-time eavesdropping access to all e-mail and e-commerce transactions. The acting president is steadily weakening Russian freedoms in the name of national security while doing little to address Russia's primary threat: Russia's widespread corruption continues to empower the country's criminal element, undermine effective government and stymie economic growth.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, has forged an alarmingly distrustful security policy towards the West. Mr. Putin has crafted a new defense doctrine which lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and accuses NATO of wanting to dominate the world. Mr. Putin also has an unsettling predilection for nuclear saber-rattling. On Dec. 14, in response to criticism regarding the Chechen war, Mr. Putin said "We are not used to such language, because Russia has a nuclear shield."

Mr. Putin has also shown a willingness to make alliances with the Communist Party. In order to prevent that party from uniting with political rivals, Mr. Putin hatched a behind-the-scenes deal which gave a communist the coveted position of speaker of the lower house of parliament.

In light of Mr. Putin's record, Russians seem poised to get a stronger hand than they may be bargaining for since the acting president seems a shoe-in for the March election. The West, meanwhile, should prepare for some challenging diplomacy.

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