- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

It has been 15 years since the Berlin Wall came down, a dramatic event symbolizing the approaching end of the Soviet Union. To borrow President Reagan’s words, it was truly an “evil empire,” one that pervaded the consciousness of Americans fearful the worst could happen: a Soviet-triggered nuclear holocaust.

When the former republics began establishing their independence from the Russian monster and the enslavement of millions began to be replaced by libertarian aspirations, the relief was overwhelming. But wait a minute, what’s this?

Is the monster rising from the dead, like a killer in a horror movie who is stabbed, shot and lying still and then gets up to grab an unsuspecting victim with his bloody hands?

The latest and much-noted indication that Russia is re-emerging as such a threat to the world’s democracies was President Vladimir Putin’s efforts at keeping an autocratic, Russia-supporting government in power in Ukraine despite a fraudulent election. But that is hardly the only sign.

Mr. Putin has waged a brutal war against Chechnya’s independence, has elsewhere tried to lure old Soviet satellite states back into the fold, has made shabby deals with Islamic fascists and squashes freedom wherever it pokes its head up in Russia itself. Last month, he engendered a creepy Cold War sensation by announcing Russia soon would have missile systems outstripping those of any other nuclear power.

One account says Mr. Putin has found occasion to praise Josef Stalin, a murderer of millions and to regret the passing of the Soviet Union. His is a mindset dramatically different from what I encountered at a meeting of scholars, journalists and Russian business and civic leaders at Aspen, Colo., in 1991 after an attempted coup in Moscow backfired, thereby furthering what the coup instigators hoped to prevent, the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians at that session were awash with democratic hope and free-market fervor, one of them insisting he was a devotee of Milton Friedman, the noted conservative economist.

Even then, students of Russian affairs warned the country lacked the cultural and institutional background to make the transition to a free society simple and easy. I learned as much myself the very next year when some of us met again with these same Russian leaders. Already, the hope was much diminished. Even the self-declared Friedmanite was unpersuaded by an American professor’s arguments that Russia had to give up state-subsidized factories producing items no one wanted to buy if it was to have resources for factories producing items competitive in the marketplace. The young Russian just couldn’t see that the unemployment he feared was exacerbated by refusing to adjust.

Russia has in fact grown economically because of its oil and because it has become capitalistic, though not capitalistic in the most energetic, competitive and innovative sense; it’s still an economy enchained by government controls and corrupt from head to foot. The future could be ugly, an expert writes, because the population is fast diminishing, in part because of widespread abortion and too much vodka. Russia could become desperate in the years ahead, and a desperate, dictatorial, nuclear-armed Russia could be more dangerous than a successful Russia, just as an injured and hungry beast is more dangerous than one with a full stomach.

One scholar says America must interact on the best possible terms with Russia on a host of vital issues, from fighting terrorists to halting nuclear proliferation, but must also make its pro-democracy stance unmistakably clear, as it has in Ukraine. That approach strikes me as correct. It may even be that, over time, we will come to see Mr. Putin was less the harbinger of renewed and lasting evil than someone whose truly horrid decisions on many issues did not prevent a better, politically liberated Russia from finally making itself felt as a force for good.

As for right now, some if not all of that old feeling has returned, the feeling of a Russia that imperils America and democracy and peace.

I had once thought it might be gone forever.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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