The Problem with Putin; Bush's Moscow Visit Will Be a Trip to Fortress Russia

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Byline: Richard Wolffe and Eve Conant

She was supposed to be smoothing the way for President George W. Bush's trip to Moscow, a celebration of Hitler's defeat 60 years ago this week. But instead of rekindling the spirit of wartime allies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only provoked the Russians, who were offended by Bush's plans. Why, they wanted to know, was Bush also traveling to Latvia and Georgia, two countries that were once part of the Soviet Union? "Bush going to Latvia and Georgia will make them think they have carte blanche to do whatever they want," Sergei Lavrov, Russia's blunt foreign minister, complained to Rice. Welcome to Moscow, Mr. President. Please leave your democratic ideals at home.

As he tries to build a legacy of promoting democracy around the globe, Bush has run headlong into Fortress Russia. Increasingly, he's fending off the kind of Russian accusations that once dominated the Soviet era of geopolitics: of covert action on Russia's borders, competing spheres of influence and zero-sum games. Bush wants to visit Latvia and Georgia to show the world what young democracies look like. Instead the Russians see his tour as yet more American interference in their backyard. Putin refuses to move his troops out of Georgia and opposes Bush's support for a new democratic government in repressive Belarus. The Russian president also is flexing his muscle in the Middle East, confirming last week that he would sell antiaircraft missiles to Syria. "We didn't appreciate that," Bush explained to reporters at his Thursday-night White House press conference, "but we made ourselves clear."

Tough talk is not just an American strategy. Putin treats the little Baltic states with disdain, refusing to sign their border treaties and lecturing them on the need for Russian-language schools. …