What should we think about President Vladimir Putin of Russia? He heads United Russia, the political party that dominates Russia's legislature. His approval ratings are in the neighborhood of 70 percent across the country (President Bush has less half that political support). In Russia's upcoming elections, Putin and his party are expected, in the words of The New York Times, to "succeed in extinguishing the last embers of opposition in Parliament."
American criticism of Putin begins with sharp condemnations of this state of affairs. We are, of course, accustomed to complaining that political leaders in Russia are not very serious in their democratic pretensions. For 70 years, after all, the Russian people had exactly nothing to say about how the country was governed. Then, in the early Yeltsin years, democratic impulses were allowed to be expressed, if hardly to flourish. Now, under his handpicked successor, things seem to be hardening again into a distinctly autocratic mold. For example, while under the constitution Putin must step down as president next year, he is apparently thinking of taking over an enhanced prime ministership and continuing to run the country from there.
Then there is the matter of Putin's foreign policy. Russia is, of course, far from being comparable to the Soviet Union of old. Just for starters, it is nowhere near as big, let alone as powerful. And its demographic trends are disastrous; on present projections by the mid-21st century, Russia's population will be smaller than Yemen's. Yet Putin, after some early signs of willingness to cooperate with Western proposals for arms limitations, has begun behaving more intractably. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently proposed that Russia join the United States and NATO as a full partner in an anti-missile system to defend all of Europe, Putin had none of it. "Before we reach such an arrangement," he said, "we will lose an opportunity of fixing some particular arrangements between us."
Putin was referring here to his vociferous objection to the ongoing plan for Western (meaning U.S.) missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia demands a freeze on this project. But the United States has made it clear that there won't be one.
Now, what does all this add up to? Is Putin bent on reviving, at least so far as he is able, the internal dictatorship and aggressive foreign policy of the Soviet Union? That is what many Western observers say they fear.
My own feelings on this subject have always been less apocalyptic, and they still are. Russia, by any standard, is a big and important country, and it should not be surprising that its president insists on throwing its weight around from time to time. What's more, Russia has historically had almost no experience with democracy worthy of the name, and we can hardly complain if its people are thoroughly satisfied with a leader who, whatever his defects as a democrat, has brought a spectacular measure of prosperity and tranquility to the country.
In short, it sounds to me as if the United States and the other Western powers assumed that Russia after communism would quickly become an amiable partner in their political, economic and military plans for the world, and are thoroughly put out that it has refused to do so.
But the world is not, and is not about to become, such a tidy place. Russia today is no military threat to the United States, or even to its much closer neighbors, and there is no prospect that it is likely to become one. But it certainly exists, and it is little short of inevitable that it will find ways of calling attention to its existence (such as its recent resumption of patrol flights by its planes over parts of the northwestern Pacific).
In the long run, as Putin assuredly knows, the real danger to Russia is not the United States, but an increasingly powerful China, with whom it shares a 4,000-mile border. A little patience will serve the United States better than the current outrage over Russia's haughty behavior.