U.S. Must Take a New

Look at Russia's Soul
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In six weeks, Dmitry Medvedev will take over as president. His ascension comes at a critical moment. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Regardless of how much independence Medvedev has from President Vladimir Putin, the United States needs to use the time before he takes office to develop a new approach for managing relations with Moscow. Whatever the U.S. strategy has been, it clearly isn't working.

Buoyed by an oil and gas windfall, Russia's leaders have been able to gloss over long-term problems at home and revert to a Cold War, zero-sum mentality in their dealings abroad. By suppressing dissent, fueling suspicion of the West, and bullying smaller neighbors, the Putin administration has managed to undermine Moscow's prestige and bring Russophobia back into fashion. A recent campaign against outside investors in Russia's energy sector is just the latest chapter in this sad story.

Ever since Bush infamously gazed into Putin's soul, Washington has airbrushed Russian belligerence and rebuffed some sensible Kremlin proposals, such as legally binding extensions to arms-control treaties. There has been little clarity on what the U.S. and Russia expect of each other, resulting in mistrust on both sides.

One priority for the West should be to protect the young states of Eastern Europe. The Kremlin invokes the amorphous concept of "sovereign democracy" to explain why Westerners should stay out of its affairs, but it ignores its own dogma when strong-arming other "sovereign democracies" in Russia's backyard.

The Kremlin has tried to force the collapse of democratically elected governments in Estonia and Georgia, and punished other neighbors by cutting energy deliveries. Russia also snapped up Serbia's state oil monopoly as payback for a United Nations-backed deal to grant Kosovo independence. Any successful strategy for engaging Russia must ensure that the region's young states will remain both sovereign and democratic in the true sense of the words.

President Medvedev is unlikely to deviate dramatically from the Kremlin's current course, but he has expressed skepticism of Russia's turn toward authoritarianism by criticizing the government's treatment of political opponents and questioning the merits of "sovereign democracy." He may understand the costs of the Kremlin's recent behavior and could be someone the West can work with more effectively than his predecessor.

Regardless, it is time to redefine our relationship with Russia. Neither side will benefit from more Potemkin diplomacy. Americans -- and Russians -- deserve better.

Joseph Biden is a U.S. senator from Delaware. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.