Unfortunately, Putin had an advantage the Soviet leadership could never have dreamed of: deep economic and political engagement with the United States and Europe. “But wait,” I hear the so-called pragmatists say, “isn’t economic engagement the best way to improve the Russian standard of living and, eventually, the state of its politics?” In fact, the opposite happened. As the price of oil skyrocketed over Putin’s first two terms, and industries were consolidated into the hands of his loyalists, the profits of engagement were invested in the security forces and propaganda machine, not liberalization. Russian oligarchs spread their wealth and political influence around the globe; Western companies, notably energy giants like Shell and British Petroleum, returned the favor by investing in Russia. The real impact of economic engagement was the reverse of the effect its apologists defend: namely the export of corruption from Russia to its “partners” in the free world.
So while our movement made some progress in drawing attention to the undemocratic reality of Putin’s Russia, we were in a losing position from the start. The Kremlin’s domination of the mass media and ruthless persecution of the opposition made it impossible to build any lasting momentum. In November 2007, I was arrested at a Moscow rally and sentenced to five days in jail under new anti-demonstration laws. Meanwhile, a new diplomatic position was slowly being adopted in the West—one that feebly acknowledged the differences between Russia and its democratic counterparts. However, according to this position, those differences were minor and “within an acceptable range,” according to one European Union official. For me and for a dozen of my colleagues marching for democracy, that “acceptable range” was 120 square feet—the size of the jail cell several of us occupied as punishment for “disobeying a police officer” at the opposition rally in Moscow.
By 2008, when Putin, having reached the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms in office, loaned the presidency to his reliable subordinate Dmitry Medvedev, it should have been clear to all that Russian democracy was dead. And yet one democratic leader after another lined up to play along with the charade. U.S. President George W. Bush phoned his new counterpart to offer congratulations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy warmly invited Medvedev to Paris. The leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, and many other countries offered similar encomiums. This despite the fact that the election that brought Medvedev to the presidency had been boycotted by the main European election-monitoring body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in protest against restrictions imposed on observers.
* * *
Barack Obama was elected president of the United States later in 2008—a few months after giving a speech in Berlin about freedom and shared values, one that evoked the famous speeches there by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who stood up to the Soviet Union and the tyranny it represented in Eastern Europe. Of course, there were complex issues around how Obama should deal with Russia’s official president, Dmitry Medvedev, and Russia’s real leader, Vladimir Putin. But the central choice he faced on coming to office was straightforward. Obama could treat them like fellow democratic leaders or he could be honest. He could take strength from the fact that he had received nearly 70 million votes while Medvedev had needed only one, that of Putin. Had Obama labeled the Putin dictatorship clearly and openly from the start he might have helped bring hope and change to an entirely different constituency: 140 million Russians.