Among the many problems the United States confronts in dealing with foreign affairs, one of the seemingly enduring ones, is the problem of Russia. And that, nowadays, tends to transpose into the problem of Putin. Vladimir Putin was Prime Minister when Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, and named Putin as his interim successor. Less than three months later, Putin won a presidential election, defeating 10 rivals, and in March 2004 he was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote. By all reports, he remains highly popular with the Russian electorate.
From the outset, the rest of the world was understandably eager to learn what kind of leader Putin would be. Would he continue Yeltsin's policy of democratization, or take Russia back toward Stalinist totalitarianism? Putin himself had been a member of the Soviet KGB, or secret intelligence agency, and this fact inspired an early pessimism in many observers. But George W. Bush, on first meeting him, claimed to have looked deep into his eyes and perceived there a worthy soul, so there was optimism in some quarters. Clearly, it was in the interest of the United States that Putin should make Russia a peaceful ally of the West.
In the following years, Putin's record has been, to say the least, uneven. The free-wheeling liberalism in both politics and economics that had characterized the Yeltsin regime gave way to growing controls. Private businessmen who had prospered mightily when Russia's economy was partially denationalized found their enterprises being re-nationalized, and a few of them even wound up in jail or exile. Independent radio stations, newspapers and magazines tended to go out of business, while Putin's political allies dominated the Russian parliament. Last year he decreed that the governors of Russia's provinces, previously elected, would henceforth be appointed -- by him.
In foreign affairs, Putin signed a 20-year friendship and cooperation treaty with China in 2001, and supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after Sept. 11. But he joined France and Germany in opposing America's second Iraq war. And he has persisted stubbornly in trying to subdue the hostile and largely Muslim Chechnya. The Chechens have responded with a series of terrorist attacks inside Russia (though Putin's critics claim he was behind some of them, to give him an excuse for further crackdowns). Finally, Putin has not hesitated to use Russia's oil and gas resources to bully neighboring Ukraine and Belarus, and even Western Europe, with threats of cut-offs.
So Putin has clearly not opted to make Russia a tame junior partner of the West. But one wonders by what right the West expected any such thing? Today's Russia is a long comedown from the mighty Soviet Union. Its gross national product is almost laughable, and its population is actually declining. Alcoholism is nearly as ubiquitous as the common cold. But it still boasts an enormous landmass, and its has a centuries-long history of authoritarianism which seems to suit much of the population better than the kind of unfettered democracy President Bush thinks the whole world is longing for.
I suggest that we stop trying to force Russia into a Western mold for which it is wholly unprepared. In the long run -- by which I mean several decades -- Russia's attention is sure to be drawn ever more forcibly to the growth of China, with which it shares a 4,000-mile border. As China grows, prospers, and expands its military, the vast spaces of Siberia and other parts of eastern Russia are bound to look appetizing. Russia, even if its population stops shrinking, will be no match for it. Where can it look for allies and protectors, if not to the West? And the West, led by the United States, will have its own profound reservations about the expansion of Chinese power.
In the long run, therefore, the "problem" of Russia will solve itself. Meanwhile, we will just have to get accustomed to a Russia that bears very little resemblance to a New England town meeting.