THE RHETORICAL war between Moscow and Washington over democracy has escalated. President Vladimir V. Putin responded to Vice President Dick Cheney's remarks in Vilnius last week by sarcastically noting that the American "need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside" once it comes into conflict with "one's own interests." But while pundits argue about the extent to which Russia has embarked upon an authoritarian path -- toward a system of unchecked executive power -- no one is asking the more fundamental question: Does it matter?
If not for Putin, the vice president and his supporters argue, Washington could push a tough resolution on Iran through the United Nations Security Council, Russia would allow U.S. firms full access to its energy sector to get more oil and gas out to market at cheaper prices, and Moscow would be much more accommodating of U.S. preferences on a whole host of issues.
If only this were true.
We underestimate at our peril the enormous degree of support for the direction Putin has taken Russia. Among 18- to 24-year-olds -- the demographic that supplied the foot soldiers for the democratic "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine -- the Putin administration has a 57% approval rating -- about twice as high, one might add, than what the Bush administration receives from that age group in the United States. Three-quarters of Russians reported increases in their disposable income over the last year. There are stirrings of dissatisfaction -- most notably with corruption and an inefficient, overbearing bureaucracy -- but little desire for any radical overthrow of a system that many believe has brought stability and prosperity after the collapse of the 1990s.
And would a more democratic Russia be more amenable to U.S. interests? Opinion polls suggest that more than 60% of Russians see the United States as having a negative influence in the world; more than half believe that the U.S. is unfriendly to Russia. And although many Americans comfort themselves with the illusion that these figures must be weighted in favor of the elderly with Cold War hang-ups, the reality is that it is the young, college-educated elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg -- Russia's wealthiest and most liberal cities -- who are the bastion of anti-U.S. sentiment in the country.
AND WHAT about Russian attitudes toward Iran? Survey data indicate that by a 2-1 margin, Russians believe the economic benefits of selling arms to Iran outweigh preserving good relations with the United States. More than 60% do not share the view that Iran endangers the security of Russia, and more than 80% agree with the proposition that Iran has drawn American ire not because Tehran poses a general threat to global peace and security but because Iran frustrates American ambitions for the region.
None of this suggests that the Russian masses want to join a U.S.-led coalition of the willing to confront the Iranian mullahs, if but for authoritarian tyrants suppressing the will of the people. Instead, any Russian government prepared to endorse and take part in any forceful action against Iran would have to defy public opinion -- not the most democratic of outcomes.
In fact, it is difficult to conceive of any Putin foreign policy decision of the last several years that would have been reversed by a more democratically accountable Russian government. Eighty-nine percent of the people, for example, opposed any participation of Russian forces in an American-led coalition in Iraq.
Perhaps the U.S. vice president and others have confused Russia's deference to the United States during the 1990s as proof that a democratizing Russia would be more pro-American. But Russia yielded to the West on a variety of issues -- from NATO expansion to intervention in the Balkans -- because of its weakness, not its liberalism. The Russia that was utterly dependent on the largesse of the International Monetary Fund in 1996 is far different from the Russia of today, with currency reserves of $225 billion and a Stabilization Fund that has $60 billion in the bank.
Shared democratic values can enhance a relationship, but it cannot substitute for joint interests. If the Bush administration cannot find common ground with Putin -- the man jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky once described as being more liberal than 70% of the Russian population -- what makes them think a more democratic Russia would be a better partner?