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Putin’s allegation notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton did not encourage this uprising against corruption, admirable though that might have been. As of this writing, the State Department had not even commented on the Russian protests. This would be in keeping with the Obama administration’s policy of offering only muted criticism of Russia’s internal repression.
From the onset, the administration seemed to believe that it could curry Russian favor through a combination of strategic concessions and diplomatic indulgence. On the strategic front, the administration pointedly scrapped Bush-era plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, which was strenuously opposed by Russia, settling instead for upgrading existing missile defenses in Europe to focus on short and medium-range ballistic missiles from the Middle East. In the diplomatic arena, the administration cultivated good relations with Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former deputy and his successor as president, believing him to be a modernizer and a reformer who could nudge Russia toward political reform.
It is now clear that the administration has failed on both tracks. While Russia initially welcomed the concession on missile defense, it has since reversed course and stepped up its belligerence. Just last week Russia opened an anti-missile radar station in the Baltic Sea area of Kalingrad. A purely symbolic move given that Europe’s missile defense systems pose no threat to Moscow, it nevertheless carried an unmistakable message of Russian rigidity. The administration’s courtship on Medvedev meanwhile came to naught for the simple reason that he has never been the real authority figure in Russia. Power has always resided with Putin, a fact confirmed earlier this year by Medvedev’s docile agreement to step aside so that Putin could resume his office.
Those mistakes are clear. The danger now is that the administration could bow to Putin’s latest rebuke by turning away from Russia’s growing opposition movement. While that movement remains disorganized, and may never become a powerful enough force to oust Putin, it represents a wholesome awakening in the country to the damage that Putin’s authoritarian regime has done both to Russia’s political system and its body politic. It would be a shame if Putin’s ridiculous charges of subversion convinced Clinton and the rest of the Obama administration that it should remain silent as the Russian government attempts to snuff out the welcome sparks of opposition that its latest electoral theft has kindled.
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