Obama to Meet with Russian Opposition Leaders:

Like Cathy Young, I worry that President Obama might be overly solicitous of the interests of Russia's authoritarian regime. In this respect, he could potentially repeat the mistakes of President Bush, who - until relatively late in his presidency - tried very hard to develop a close relationship Russia's ex-KGB ruler Vladimir Putin (including ending US criticism of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, signing a nuclear arms limitation pact on terms favoring Russia, and waxing eloquent about how he had looked into Putin's eyes and saw an "trustworthy" partner with a wonderful "soul"), while getting few concessions from the Russians in return.

President Obama's decision to meet with Russian opposition leaders during his trip to Moscow is, however, a small hopeful sign:

President Barack Obama has invited several prominent members of the Russian opposition, including United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov, for a meeting in Moscow. Boris Nemtsov, a chair of the Solidarity opposition movement, has also been invited to the meeting, set to take place on July 7th at the Ritz Carlton hotel. The format of the event was still unclear.

“Of course, this will be interesting,” Kasparov said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station. “The previous American administration didn’t dare to do this....”

Obama will travel to Moscow on July 6th for meetings with the Kremlin as well as business and civil society leaders. A meeting with Russia’s leading human rights advocates has been scheduled at the Metropol hotel, the location of a consultation between representatives from NGOs in the US and Russia.

Earlier, Boris Nemtsov argued that it was essential for Obama to meet with opposition forces in Russia. “If the White House agrees to Putin’s suggestion to speak only with pro-Putin organizations… this will mean that Putin has won, but not only that: Putin will become be assured that Obama is weak,” he said.

Falling oil prices and the financial crisis have reduced Putin's popularity and weakened his regime's grip on power. Now more than ever, it is important for the US to avoid putting all of our eggs in the Putin basket and encourage pro-Western liberal opposition forces in Russia.

That doesn't mean we should never cooperate with Putin on issues of common interest. For example, if Putin suddenly shows a willingness to work with the US on Iran, North Korea, and other issues, Obama should pursue any such opportunities that might arise. Effective foreign policy sometimes requires cooperation with unsavory regimes. While the current Russian government is odious, it isn't nearly as bad as its communist predecessors, or as repressive as the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other US allies.

So far, however, the Putin regime has done virtually nothing to reciprocate either Bush's many overtures or Obama's more recent efforts to press the "reset button" on US-Russian relations. As opposition leader Boris Nemtsov suggested in the passage quoted above, perhaps Putin will be in a more cooperative mood if we avoid looking weak and demonstrate that we have other options. Even if he doesn't, we have little to lose by working to foster liberal forces in Russia. And if the current regime's popularity continues to decline, we have a lot to gain from working to promote liberal alternatives to the strongly anti-Western communists and ultra-nationalists who are the other main alternative to the status quo in Russia. Obama's meeting with the Russian opposition leaders is a small but symbolically valuable step in the right direction.