Hoover Daily Report

Putin's Moment of Truth

Monday, October 15, 2001

On September 11, 2001, Russian president Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to speak with President Bush. He offered his unwavering support to combat our common enemy, terrorism. That same day, I received dozens of calls and e-mails from friends in Russia expressing support for my country. This outpouring of support from Russia has convinced me that Russians and Americans share common values and have the potential to be part of one international community. What unites us is much more important than what divides us. Polls that I conducted with Harvard professor Timothy Colton last year provide hard data to support my emotional, unscientific reading of Russian attitudes toward the dreadful September day. Our surveys show that two-thirds of the Russian people embrace democratic ideals and practices.

Since that first phone call to Bush, however, Putin has allowed some of his advisers to add qualifications to Russia's support. His senior military and intelligence officers are pushing him to retreat to old ways of thinking regarding international politics, to worry more about NATO troops in Central Asia and old Soviet allies, Iraq and Iran. At the time of this writing, Putin had not committed unequivocally to the new U.S. military and diplomatic campaign against radical Islamic fundamentalism.

Ironically, the recent attack against the United States offers Russia an opportunity to join the West. The disputes that divided Russia and the United States throughout the latter half of the 1990s seem trivial compared to our new common interests. If Putin were to cooperate with the United States and its allies in this campaign against terrorism, the lingering legacies of the cold war might be overcome. If Putin continues to listen to those espousing Soviet geostrategic thinking, Russia may miss its chance for Western integration.

President Bush can help Putin make the right decision by reminding Putin of a bitter fact—Russia cannot become a full member of the Western community of states unless Russia consolidates democracy at home. As the Bush team embarks on a protracted conflict with a worldwide foe, it will be tempted to sidestep hard questions of those who go along. This would be a mistake. Russia will never be an all-around partner of the United States and the West unless democratization proceeds. Backsliding could pit this strategically vital country against the United States once again.

To encourage democratization in Russia and cooperation in our battle against terrorism, Bush has to offer a positive agenda. In affirming the importance of democratic consolidation as a prerequisite for integration, Bush can lead other countries into making integration an attainable goal by pushing for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, lowering trade barriers to Russian imports, and relaxing travel restrictions. More boldly, Bush could outline the concrete stages for future Russian membership in NATO.

The recent attack on American soil has focused our mind on the real threats to our security—Russia need not be one of them. On the contrary, these tragic events underscore just how close our countries have become. The Russian people already have made this realization. They, like us, are waiting for the Russian government to do the same.