Mr. Putin then handpicked Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him last year, while Mr. Putin became prime minister.
Mr. Kupchan said that Russia “had periods of reform and progress both under Yeltsin and Putin, but the pieces did not add up to a real reform movement.”
Mrs. Gati said the economic chaos of the 1990s was a big factor in the retreat of democracy in Russia.
“The Russians had the misfortune to have their revolution at a time when we believed government was the problem,” she said. As a result, “they got a stock market, but not a [Securities and Exchange Commission]” to regulate the market.
Privatization was done badly, with little benefit for the average Russian, she added. The economy and the currency collapsed, giving democracy a bad name and linking it to chaos.
The United States also could have done more to shore up the Russian economy, she said, such as forgiving billions of dollars in old Soviet debts. She recalled a discussion in the National Security Council when President Clinton was asked whether the U.S. could provide billions of dollars to pay Russian pensions. Mr. Clinton replied, ” ‘How can I guarantee the pension of every Russian when I can’t do that in the United States?’ ” Mrs. Gati said.
Relations grew colder under the George W. Bush administration, which repeatedly accused the Kremlin of backsliding on democracy and human rights.
The Obama administration has been accused of not pressing Moscow enough on those issues in an attempt to “reset” the tense relationship it inherited.
However, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did meet with democracy activists and other civil society leaders during a visit to Moscow last month.
“We are very clearly committed to supporting people who are democracy advocates in every sense of the word,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind that democracy is in Russia’s best interests, that respecting human rights, an independent judiciary, a free media are in the interests of building a strong, stable political system that provides a platform for broadly shared prosperity.”
Mrs. Gati said Russia has made progress despite the setbacks, and that the pendulum appeared to be shifting away from Putin-style authoritarianism. Russians have much more personal freedom than they did under communism, including the right to travel.
“You have a whole generation that doesn’t have the fear of those who came before,” she said.
Mr. Medvedev has raised hopes that his younger generation of leaders will spearhead more democratic changes. In September, he surprised many when he started a national debate about democracy in an article on a Russian Web site, in which he warned of “negative democratic tendencies” in the country.
Mr. Kupchan, however, predicted slow progress even after Mr. Putin’s generation passes from the scene and said the space “between Medvedev and Putin is much less than the press would indicate.” He also said the Obama administration has “slim to no leverage over the course of Russian domestic politics.”
Mrs. Gati was also cautious, but a bit more upbeat.