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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reach Out to Putin's Russia

When U.S. President George W. Bush famously looked into President Vladimir Putin's eyes a few years ago, he should have seen a new Russian tsar. For a president who has put democracy promotion at the top of his agenda, Putin's Russia is an awkward problem.

U.S. Senator John McCain suggested that Western leaders should boycott the summit of the Group of Eight scheduled for St. Petersburg this summer. Meanwhile, journalists report a policy debate between Dick Cheney, the U.S. vice president, who urges a tougher line toward Putin's backsliding, and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, who reportedly takes a more pragmatic position. Bush apparently rejected McCain's advice, but the problem of dealing with Putin's Russia remains difficult.

I recently revisited Moscow. The city looks more like a normal European capital than the dreary city of 20 years ago. In the 1980s, Russian colleagues risked critical comments only when walking out of doors or in noisy restaurants, but never in their bugged offices. This time I found students, journalists and politicians willing to criticize Putin openly. Russia may not be democratic, but there is certainly more private property and personal freedom than there was two decades ago.

Ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who helped make that freedom possible, is not very popular in Russia today. At a recent Gorbachev Foundation conference and concert celebrating his 75th birthday, he was praised by intellectuals and artists, but many members of the public blame him for weakening Soviet Russia. As one friend told me, when Gorbachev visited his home city, crowds shouted abuse at him. He stopped and shouted back: "Don't forget I am the one who gave you the right to shout!"

But free speech is not the same as democracy, particularly when it cannot be amplified and organized for political purposes. While newspapers and some radio stations are openly critical of the regime, television is strictly controlled. As one of Putin's supporters proudly explained: "We are a manipulated democracy. It is really no different than Berlusconi's Italy." But despite Silvio Berlusconi's influence over his television stations as prime minister, the outcome of the Italian elections was an open question. No one suggested any doubt that Putin's United Russia would control the next national elections.

What will Russia's future look like? One former political leader suggested that Russian politics is like a pendulum. It had swung too far in the direction of chaos under Boris Yeltsin and was now swinging too far in the direction of order under Putin, but would eventually reach equilibrium.

Others were not so sure. A young State Duma member told me he foresaw a continual decline of freedom rather than a return to equilibrium.

Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that "although not democratic, Russia is largely free. Property rights are more deeply anchored than they were five years ago. Russia's future now depends heavily on how fast a middle class -- a self-identified group with personal stakes in having a law-based government accountable to taxpayers -- can be created."

Faced with this uncertainty, how should the United States respond? Rice said last December that "the fundamental character of regimes matters more today than the international distribution of power." Yet in addition to its democracy agenda, the United States has a realist agenda based on very tangible interests. It needs Russian cooperation in dealing with issues such as nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, the control of nuclear materials and weapons, combating the current wave of Salafi-jihadist terrorism, and energy production and security (which will be a focus of the G8 agenda). Moreover, Russia possesses talented people, technology and resources that can help to meet new transnational challenges such as climate change or the spread of pandemic diseases.

There may not be as much conflict between these two agendas as first appears. If the United States were to turn its back on Russia, it would not advance the growth of liberal democracy in Russia. Most Russian liberals I spoke to believed such isolation would accelerate the xenophobic and statist tendencies long present in Russian culture and make the liberal democratic cause even more difficult. In their view, the United States should look to the long run, use its soft power of attraction, expand exchanges and contacts with Russia's new generation, support Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization and address Russian deficiencies with specific criticisms rather than general harangues or counter-productive isolation.

The sources of change in Russia will remain rooted in Russia, and American influence will be limited no matter what Americans do. But petulant actions that play well in domestic politics in the United States may hinder rather than help Russians who share Americans' values.

Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and an author, most recently of "The Power Game: A Washington Novel." He was an assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the early 1990s. He contributed this comment to the Financial Times.