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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who's to Blame?

Who lost Russia? As the country backslides ever more quickly into authoritarianism, the answer you increasingly hear is: the United States.

Curiously, you hear it both from Russians, who simultaneously deny that anything bad has happened and blame America for it; and from Americans, who assume that a few tweaks of policy could have made everything come out differently.

One version blames the United States for backing Boris Yeltsin, who presided imperfectly over Russia's transition to democracy in the 1990s and, so the story goes, soured Russians on the very idea of freedom. Another blames the United States for allowing former Soviet satellites to join NATO, hurting Russians' feelings and promoting a nationalist backlash.

As readings of history, these theories mix elements of truth with great dollops of illogic. It's true that Russians endured trying times after communism crumbled. Prices rose, promised pensions vanished and unsavory characters became millionaires.

But the same was true in Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and many other countries. Democratization wasn't pretty anywhere. The question is why those countries managed to weather the transition and come through, with varying degrees of success, to the other side, while Russia was left looking for scapegoats.

As to NATO: On the one hand, you have, say, Estonia, a democracy of 1.3 million people, freely joining in 2004 an alliance of like-minded democracies. On the other hand, you have Vladimir Putin abolishing gubernatorial elections, muzzling the press and imprisoning his political opponents. If you fail to see the connection, it's because there is none.

A Russia developing in a healthy way would be happy to see its smaller neighbors democratize, improve ties with the West and prosper, all of which could redound to Russia's benefit. Russia's leaders know perfectly well that there is no military threat from Estonia and never will be. But because they continue to define greatness in terms of state ownership and control, they prefer an impoverished and dependent Belarus to a thriving and autonomous Poland.

So what can explain Russia's de-democratization? Russians often blame their own "serf" mentality, a cultural tradition arising from centuries of autocracy that left them supposedly unsuited for self-rule. A more refined version points out that communism lasted a generation longer in Russia than in Central Europe, which at least emerged with faint memories of between-war civil society.

Then there is Russia's misfortune to be rich in oil, gas, diamonds and other resources. Latvia and Slovenia understood that they needed predictable laws and respect for private property to attract foreign investment; Russia knew the oil multinationals would come fawning even to a regime that expropriated when convenient. Estonia viewed government's role as enabling its citizens to create wealth; Russians used government to grab the wealth that nature had provided.

Being at the center of an empire might also be a misfortune. Other countries could blame Russia for their lost decades; Russia, having no one to blame, couldn't face its history. And since even the diminished, post-Soviet Russia contained nations of non-Russians, from Chechnya in the south to Tatarstan in the middle to Sakha in Siberia, the new Russia could not build itself on ethnic Russian nationalism and had trouble finding any other source of national identity.

All of these factors may play some role. But Michael McFaul, an expert on democratization at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, cautions that "the structural explanations -- culture, history of communism, oil and gas -- can be easily overplayed, while the actual decisions and mistakes of individual leaders can be forgotten or excused."

That's true of U.S. mistakes, too. The United States doesn't determine Russia's fate, but it has influence at the edges. It could speak straightforwardly with Russia's leaders and search for areas of common interest, while defending the rights of Russia's neighbors to chart their own course and of Russia's citizens to live in freedom.

Instead, U.S. officials too often treat Russia like a touchy adolescent who shouldn't be provoked. Last week U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, complained that for the fourth year in a row, the U.S. presidential administration has proposed "devastating cutbacks" in programs to assist democratic and civil society groups in Russia.

That's something for which the United States should be blamed. Or, as Lantos said: "At a time when supporters of democratic reform, the rule of law, and human rights are being assassinated or carted off to the gulags of Siberia, we should not be starving these groups of vital support."

Fred Hiatt is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment appeared.