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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tale of Two St. Petes

It is fitting that President Vladimir Putin is welcoming President George W. Bush to his hometown of St. Petersburg. An imperial backdrop makes sense for two men creating empires of the 21st century. When Peter the Great built his city 300 years ago, he had two somewhat contradictory purposes in mind. He wanted to showcase Russia's world-power status, but he also wanted to create a "window to Europe" (Europe's hand would poke through, pulling Russia into a more modern era.). The question is which of the two St. Petersburgs Bush will focus on: the gold-encrusted imperial capital, or the portal to the West and its values of human rights and liberal democracy.

My guess is that he'll pick the first, because that's the one Putin wants him to see. Gone are the days when U.S. presidents stood up to their Russian counterparts and openly pressed them to bring about democratic reform. Now relations at the top are largely about personal friendship. Diplomacy is tied to personality. Bill Clinton related to Russia largely in terms of his relationship with Boris Yeltsin. Bush has followed suit, making U.S. policy a hostage to his personal attachment to Putin.

This is all rather surprising. Remember that in the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush and his advisers were critical of the personality-driven approach to diplomacy and of the White House for paying only lip service to ending the epidemic of corruption in Moscow and the brutal war in Chechnya. Yet after taking office, Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw a kindred spirit, and apparently one doesn't ask tough questions of one's soulmate.

Not much good has come of this style of foreign policy. Despite this cozy relationship between the leaders, the situation in Russia has not improved. The war in Chechnya continues. Corruption is on the rise (businesses now pay an estimated $33 billion a year in bribes to government officials, equal to about 10 percent of the gross domestic product). And, in terms of personal liberties and democracy, things are much worse than before Putin came into power. Last month Freedom House, an independent group that monitors civil liberties around the world, downgraded Russia from being a country where the press is "partly free" to one where it is "not free" at all.

So why is the Bush administration so willing to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor? Why does it seem to be more interested in personality than in working as an agent for democratic change in Russia? The answer, I think, is that it doesn't really believe Russia matters. After all, Russia is no longer a superpower, and it no longer poses a credible threat to the United States. This sentiment was summed up neatly when I recently asked a senior White House aide whether he was concerned about rising anti-American feelings in Russia. His reply: "We don't care."

And I have to admit, the politics of "don't care" has brought some short-term benefits to the United States, including the NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. However, that American triumph has had unfortunate consequences. The ease with which America waved aside Moscow's objections weakened Putin among the hard-line nationalists in the bureaucracy, and he was forced to give them a freer hand. Now the State Duma is little more than a rubber stamp for the government, and the Kremlin has near-total control of the press.

The rise of anti-Americanism in political circles has trickled down to the public at large. And it came at the same time that many Russian liberals, who had once seen the United States as a reliable promoter of democratic politics, decided they had been betrayed by Washington and stopped raising their voices against demagogues who see the United States as pure evil.

Even if the Bush administration won't support Russian democracy for its own sake, it has plenty of pragmatic reasons for pushing Putin back on track. For one, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made clear yet again that terrorism tends to originate in authoritarian countries, not democracies. An unaccountable authoritarian regime, driven by nationalism and equipped with nuclear weapons? That should worry even the world's only superpower.

So as Bush sees the sights with Putin, I hope he'll keep in mind a bit of Russian history that will receive scant mention during the jubilee. St. Petersburg might have been created as a window to the West, but it was built on the bones of tens of thousands of serfs who perished while raising it out of the swamp. If Bush is truly a good friend, he should look Putin in the eye again and ask him which St. Petersburg he wants to build.

Yevgenia Albats is a columnist for Novaya Gazeta. She contributed this comment to The New York Times.