Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama should court Russians, not Putin

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In the year since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin as president, his rule has become increasingly repressive. He has harassed or shut down non-governmental organizations, put opposition leaders on trial and had pop-star protesters jailed on flimsy charges. Corruption is entrenched, the judiciary has been hobbled and critics are routinely branded as treacherous foreign agents.

The evidence is clear. The question is how the West should respond.

So far there has been a curious inversion of past practice. European countries -- led by Germany, Russia's biggest trading partner -- have long been in favour of a soft approach. Their argument used to be that stability mattered more than democracy in such a vast and unruly country, that Europe needed Russian oil and gas, and that criticism from outside was unlikely to make much difference.

The Americans, in contrast, mostly preferred a tougher stance, insisting the West should support human rights and democracy everywhere and firmly denouncing Russia's slide toward autocracy.

These days, however, U.S. President Barack Obama supports the pragmatic approach that underpinned the "reset" of his first term, arguing that he needs Russian help in the fight against terrorism, for arms-control treaties and in such trouble spots as the Middle East. It is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany who is most outspoken in attacking Putin's repression.

Merkel is right and Obama is wrong, for three reasons.

First, holding back criticism may not make Putin any more helpful. It is true the Kremlin can lash out in retaliation in specific cases or against particular countries. More broadly, though, Russia -- like the West -- pursues what it sees as its own interests. So it will cooperate on international terrorism, for instance in the case of the Boston bombers who came from the north Caucasus, and it may do so over arms control, but it will not on Syria, as it showed yet again this week by promising to ship sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to President Bashar Assad's vile regime. Indeed, Putin's rule at home has become increasingly bound up with his confrontational attitude toward the West in Syria and elsewhere.

The second reason is criticism can count for more than skeptics believe. Putin and his cronies are not suddenly going to embrace liberal democracy, but they are conscious of their image -- and their assets -- abroad, and they like to be judged by Western standards.

Putin values his country's international standing. Russia will chair the G8 next year, and he plans a summit in Sochi. He badly wants the Sochi Olympics to be a success. He may not change in response to foreign critics, but he is not impervious to them. Nor is his position at home invulnerable, given Russia's growing economic problems and the slide in its oil and gas revenues.

The third and most important reason is the West should defend its democratic values in order to lend support to the opposition to Putin. Opponents of autocratic governments everywhere are disheartened if they see the West pulling its punches or even embracing dictatorships. Those who prefer business to politics often favour engagement with such regimes and oppose any strident criticism, on the basis nothing is likely ever to change.

One day change will come to Russia, as it will to Syria. When that happens, among the losers will be those who appeased or backed the dictators.

It is far better for Obama to identify himself strongly with those who embrace the West's values, in Russia as everywhere else.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2013 A9

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