May 9, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Stalin's Ghost

President Bush's Moscow visit today, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allies' WW II Victory in Europe, must be as carefully choreographed as a Bolshoi ballet if it's going to be chalked up as a diplomatic success.

While paying tribute to the sacrifices of Americans - and others - who defeated Hitler's Germany, the president will also use his 14th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to address a host of Russian policies hostile to U.S. interests.

Along the way, Bush must avoid looking supportive of Putin's rising authoritarianism, of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe/Baltic states or of current Russian attempts to regain hegemony over former Soviet republics.

Executing such a complex diplomatic dance won't be easy.

It's understandable that victory over Hitler's Germany is widely celebrated in Russia: Mother Russia lost 28 million people in the "Great Patriotic War."

What's incomprehensible is how some (most notably Putin) are burnishing wartime leader Josef Stalin's image, and shamelessly promoting nostalgia for the Soviet Union's "good old days" for the occasion.

The end of WWII also meant the advent of Stalin's Soviet empire, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Before his death in 1953, Stalin killed 20 million Soviets and placed countless more in far-flung "gulags."

Not much to celebrate in any of that . . .

Yet, in his annual address to parliament last month, Putin (a former KGB colonel) said: "The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Putin has lamented publicly the passing of the Soviet Union before, perhaps accounting for his decision to reinstate the Soviet national anthem and military flag.

Bush must also address more concrete issues. For starters, there's Putin's emasculation of political, press and economic freedoms.

During her Russian visit last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the "trends have not been positive" - a diplomatic understatement if there ever was one. But concerns about Russian behavior extend beyond its borders. Moscow is propping up Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom Rice recently called "Europe's last dictator." And Putin refuses to close Russian bases in Georgia.

On the wider world stage, there's the $800 million nuclear reactor Russia is building for Iran. It will aid Iran's nuclear (weapons) program at a time when Tehran defies international attempts to corral its nuclear activities.

Moscow is also arming Syria with surface-to-air missiles, while forgiving Damascus' $3 billion Soviet-era military debt. And it's selling advanced weapons to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez - not to mention China.

Of course, Moscow is worried about us, too: Russia resents our criticism of its domestic and international policies and fears American encroachment on its sphere of influence.

As evidence of the latter, Moscow points to NATO expansion, the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia and American support for last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as well as democracy movements in other former Soviet states, including Kyrgyzstan.

Bush will try to allay Russian fears of encirclement, while encouraging Putin to loosen his vise-like grip on the press, opposition leaders and political power. He will also urge cooperation on Iran and North Korea, preventing WMD proliferation and fighting terrorism.

American leverage? Though flush with oil and gas money, Russia's economy needs assistance, including foreign direct investment and U.S. support for entering the World Trade Organization.

The president is making another clear statement of his - and America's - principles, on this, his third European trip this year: He's book-ending his Russia stop with visits to former Soviet republics, where he will celebrate their independence, sovereignty - and democracy.

In the Baltics, Bush met with Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian presidents on Saturday in Riga. The Soviet Union occupied all three nations from 1940-41 and 1945-1991, which is why the Lithuanian and Latvian presidents are passing on today's "celebration." Latvia's prime minister will go, using the visit to trumpet the ordeal of Soviet subjugation.

Bush will conclude his trip tomorrow by visiting Tbilisi's Freedom Square, the site of Georgia's democratic Rose Revolution (which inspired Ukraine's Orange Revolution.) The Georgian president will also boycott the Moscow commemoration due to a last minute impasse over Russian troop pull-outs.

In each country, including Russia, Bush will meet with human rights and democracy activists. This will symbolically affirm the American commitment to these principles and send a message to Putin, too.

Russia looks to be a long-term problem for American foreign policy, so Bush is right to go to Moscow to continue building influence with Putin - personal relationships count.

We can only hope that Bush's rapport with Putin will have as great an impact on ending increasing authoritarianism in Russia as President Ronald Reagan had on Mikhail Gorbachev in ending Soviet communism.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in the New York Post