Monday, May 9, 2005

President Bush didn’t peer into Vladimir Putin’s soul on Sunday, but he took the wheel of the Russian president’s white 1956 Volga outside Moscow in a public gesture of cooperation and spent much of the remainder of his trip commemorating V-E Day with world leaders.

In so doing, Mr. Bush appears to have hit the right points in the right order. In a speech in Latvia Saturday, he called the Communist ascension in Eastern Europe “one of the greatest wrongs of history” and warned Mr. Putin to let democracy thrive in neighboring countries. He then followed the speech with a more conciliatory note Sunday in which he paid tribute to Russian sacrifices in World War II, participated in a Red Square celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and proceeded to spend an hour and a half discussing critical issues with Mr. Putin in private, including nuclear proliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then, yesterday, he travelled to Georgia in a show of support for that country’s fledgling democracy.

This was the right combination of carrots and sticks for Mr. Putin. It had the added advantage of being an honest assessment of recent history. The Russian people sacrificed heroically to help defeat Nazism. Joseph Stalin — who killed as many people as Hitler — enslaved Eastern Europe. Insofar as Russia exhibits troubling renewed signs of authoritarianism, Mr. Putin deserves a reminder that the West will not tolerate power grabs at the expense of emerging democracies in Latvia, Ukraine and Russia itself. Hence Mr. Bush noted the “occupation and Communist oppression” of the Baltic states in his Riga speech, much to Mr. Putin’s chagrin.

Mr. Putin has presided over, among other things, the quashing of an independent Russian media and a substantial weakening of both the judicial and electoral branches of government, not to mention his troubling dealings with Iran and Syria and being on the wrong side of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Coupled with nostalgia for the Soviet era evident in many of his speeches, all this shows Mr. Putin clearly needs warning that a resurgence of state power will be viewed unfavorably by the West and would not bode well for Russian interests. Mr. Putin was reportedly unhappy with President Bush’s itinerary through Latvia and the Netherlands, calling the president’s remarks an instance of American meddling and firing missives in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” That is to the good.

On the other hand, Mr. Putin is an indispensible partner for the president’s foreign-policy agenda, and most importantly, the war on terror. Russian cooperation in the Proliferation Security Initiative and other nuclear-proliferation efforts has been vital. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also would be helped by Russian cooperation. President Bush needs Mr. Putin on board for his most vital foreign-policy initiatives, and his reportedly productive private meeting with Mr. Putin on counterproliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are evidence of that fact.

No agreements were announced, but aides from both sides touted the meeting as a success despite speculation beforehand of the opposite. If the meeting was productive, that would be significant: It comes on the heels of deteriorating relations and a series of unfortunate moves by the Russian president.

The real test of success is not meetings, of course, but results. President Bush’s meeting is a further reminder that Russia needs to follow through on its commitments to stop nuclear proliferation and prosecute the war on terror, all while reversing its troubling slide toward authoritarianism. That’s a tall order for a Russian government whose record on those accounts is mixed.

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