And the Bush administration has to speak with one voice. When unnamed "senior officials" speak on background to journalists, they contend that pushing Putin toward democracy is a lower priority than winning his cooperation on Iran and North Korea, and some White House aides suggest that Russia's backsliding on democracy is less dramatic than it seems.
Bush must end these mixed messages and his administration also must work harder to get our Europeans allies on message as well. Putin has successfully cultivated relationships with his counterparts in France, Germany and Britain, undercutting what should be a united Western opposition to Russia's democratic backsliding. In addition, the Bush administration must reconfigure its foreign aid package to Russia to give greater support to those activities and organizations dedicated to making Russia's 2007 parliamentary election and 2008 presidential election free and fair.
In Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, monitoring organizations carried out exit polls and parallel vote tabulations that proved critical to exposing voter fraud. Similar technologies and organizations must be developed in Russia. Finally, Bush must sustain what his visit to Georgia on Tuesday will begin: a show of moral and economic support for the countries in the region that have recently experienced democratic breakthroughs.
The project of building democracy is far from over in either Georgia or Ukraine. In contrast to Russia, however, leaders in both of these countries want to work with the United States to consolidate their democratic gains. Assisting them in this must be Bush's priority.
The failure of democracy in Georgia or Ukraine will bolster anti-democratic groups inside Russia, while success will aid Russia's democratic forces.
Getting serious about Russian democracy does not mean isolating or containing Russia. Nor does a new strategy for promoting Russian democracy mean that other issues in U.S.-Russian relations need to be neglected. During the Cold War, U.S. presidents worked toward arms control with their Soviet counterparts and promoted freedom within the communist world at the same time.
Bush can work with Putin to fight terror and prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while seeking to foster democracy in Russia. There need not be tradeoffs or linkage between these agendas. But let's be clear. The Russian president has worked with the United States in the war on terrorism or international nonproliferation efforts only when he thought that cooperation advanced Russian national interests, and never to do Bush a favor. Less talk about democracy is not going to make Putin more eager to cooperate on Iran or North Korea.
Even if Bush fails to help the cause of Russian democracy, he should at least signal clearly and boldly whose side he is on. At least then, when historians assess his legacy, they will give him credit for trying.