- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Much is on the table at the Group of Eight (G-8) Summit, which opens today in Germany, but casting a shadow over the official agenda are simmering tensions and worsening relations between Russia and the West. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to win an agreement from Russian officials last month to tone down the rhetoric. But the agreement hasn’t stuck. Just last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin played host to Western journalists and grabbed headlines with menacing speculation about pointing Russian missiles at Europe. Mr. Putin then deflected questions about his domestic policies with the claim that: “I am an absolutely pure democrat. The real tragedy is that I am the only one. Elsewhere in the world there just aren’t any others.” So absurd is the claim that it comes off as nothing more than a bungled barb.

The jab was most likely a soundbite for domestic consumption. The Bush administration has reminded Mr. Putin on many occasions that the Cold War has ended, but his remarks still play well with many Russians. Mr. Putin is concerned with the fate of his system after he formally leaves the presidency, and filtering these comments through the state-regulated media, which usually fails to report the more tempered rebuttals, has its advantages for him.

In response to the proposed U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Mr. Putin said that Russia would “have to get new targets in Europe.” The threat carries more rhetorical than military weight, since modern missiles can be targeted and re-targeted quickly. Russia made a more menacing gesture last week when it tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that Kremlin officials suggestively announced could penetrate any missile defense system.

As planned, the missile interceptors are nothing for Russia to worry about, and senior Russian military officials have acknowledged that the system would not be a deterrent. Mr. Putin’s overreaction has twofold significance: First, Russia is distrustful of U.S. assurances and expects that the proposed system is nothing more than a foothold from which U.S. presence will expand. Second, he is trying to send the message to Washington to stay out of what Russia still regards as a region where it is entitled to special influence.

Washington has done well to stay above acrimonious recriminations, but there is much room for the United States and its European allies to toughen what has been, with few exceptions, a largely circumspect and gentle approach to Mr. Putin’s government. Mr. Bush’s visit to Poland and the Czech Republic shows that kind of firmness. So does Britain’s demand that Russia extradite a former FSB agent indicted in the poisoning death of one of his former associates in London.

Two new leaders in the G-8, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit’s host, share U.S. concerns about the clear trend in Russia’s foreign policy and Mr. Putin’s domestic agenda. The current consensus going into the G-8 summit presents the opportunity to take a collectively firmer line against Russia.

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