To Russia, With Tough Love

February 24, 2005

St. Petersburg, Russia — Given the diplomatic challenges facing President Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, it’s good that they are meeting today in Bratislava, Slovakia. In doing so, they are keeping alive a useful and time-honored practice. After all, the principal occupants of the White House and Kremlin have been sitting down together since the chilliest days of the cold war. But the way things are going in Russia, it may be harder to justify Mr. Bush’s next encounter with Mr. Putin at the annual summit meeting of the Group of 8 major industrialized countries at the Gleneagles resort in Perthshire, Scotland, in July.

Members of the group (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan as well as Russia and the United States) are supposed to share a commitment to multiparty democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, protection of human and civil rights, and respect for the sovereignty of their neighbors. Mr. Putin’s concentration of power, his crackdown on the independent news media, his scorched-earth policy in Chechnya, and his bullying of Georgia and Ukraine have jeopardized Russia’s membership in that club.

If some influential Democrats and Republicans in Congress have their way, Russia may well be booted out. Alarmed by Mr. Putin’s tendencies, they have threatened Russia with suspension or outright expulsion from the group. But an effort along these lines instigated by the United States would not only backfire, it would be a waste of an opportunity to nudge Russia in the right direction.

It’s not that criticism of Mr. Putin is misplaced. Shortly after Mr. Bush’s re-election, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain privately warned him of a looming problem with “our friend Vladimir.” Mr. Bush agreed. Although the president had previously coddled Mr. Putin, who supported the war on terrorism and avoided causing difficulties for the United States and Britain in Iraq, he has begun, ever so gently, to raise questions in public about developments in Russia.

Mr. Putin inherited his seat at the Group of 8 table from his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Fourteen years ago, the then-Group of 7 invited Mr. Gorbachev to be a guest as a reward for loosening the iron grip of Soviet power.

In the 1990’s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and Mr. Gorbachev had left office, Mr. Yeltsin claimed that as the democratically elected president of post-Soviet Russia, he was entitled to full membership. In 1998, he got his way. The Group of 7 leaders hoped that by treating Mr. Yeltsin as a peer rather than as an applicant on probation, they would provide an incentive for him and his successors to keep Russia on a reformist course.

While Mr. Putin has cast that strategy into doubt, a move by the United States to evict him from the Group of 8 would only play into the hands of nationalist forces in Russia who believe in their country’s uniquely “Eurasian” destiny, which implies an authoritarian domestic order and a foreign policy that combines intimidation of other former Soviet republics and xenophobia toward the world at large. A signal that the West is giving up on Russia would also discourage democrats, who are down but not out.

A better approach would be to take advantage of the summit meetings’ calendar. The group is due to gather in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006. Mr. Putin’s desire for an upbeat meeting gives the other seven some leverage. If they close ranks behind Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair and acknowledge that the Group of 8 has a Putin problem, they can use the next 16 months for a campaign of quiet calibrated diplomacy, including under Mr. Blair’s leadership at Gleneagles, to confront their colleague with a choice: If Mr. Putin allows adverse trends in Russia to continue, his guests in St. Petersburg will go public with their disappointment. Faced with that prospect, Mr. Putin might be induced to reaffirm principles of good governance that all eight have agreed to at previous summit meetings and other forums but that Russia has ignored, violated or only partly carried out.

In addition to standing at the center of an all-smiles group photograph and signing a happy-talk communiqué, Mr. Putin would be taken more seriously if he agreed to definitions of what the obligations mean as well as timetables and monitoring mechanisms. If the outcome of St. Petersburg is cast in terms of delivering on existing commitments, he cannot legitimately complain that Russia is being subjected to new demands or discriminatory conditions. While Mr. Putin is a harder case than his two predecessors, experience with them showed that behavior modification worked better if they were welcomed to the clubhouse with clear conditions rather than taken to the woodshed.

If Mr. Putin goes along, he will get—and deserve—the summit meeting success he craves. More important, the event will spur Russia’s evolution as an open society, fully integrated into the international community, and uphold the value and credibility of the Group of 8 in the bargain.

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and author of “The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy,” was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.