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In the late 1970’s former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger lamented that democratic societies were at a great disadvantage in their struggle with totalitarian rivals.  Their leaders were burdened with a free press, an organized political opposition and a citizenry that possessed the ballot box to expel them from office.

Totalitarian rulers, in turn, did not have to endure any of these daunting threats: they just ignored the disgruntled masses and forged ahead without fear of being held accountable for their most egregious mistakes and corrupt practices. How could their democratic competitors hope to prevail over them?

But Kissinger, who later admitted that he failed to anticipate the Soviet Union’s disintegration, was dead-wrong. What he deemed inherent flaws of open societies were in fact powerful assets.  A free press exposed the mistakes of the authorities, and elections provided the people with the means to remove them from office. Consequently, their replacements had the opportunity to scrap the failed policies with new, more effective alternatives.

Since autocrats, operating free of democratic institutions and practices, cannot be held accountable for their most egregious blunders, they often make the same mistake time and again until they have dug a hole so deep they are incapable of climbing out of it—such was the fate of Soviet Nomenklatura twenty years ago. Contrary to the claims of some in Moscow today, the CIA was not responsible for the USSR’s demise—it was a victim of its own “internal contradictions.”  Putin ignores similar threats to his rule at his peril.

Of course, the December 10 demonstrators are not likely to deny him another term as President. Also, the Kremlin may side-track them through a host of institutional obstructions while millions of passive, disoriented and intimidated Russians will stay at home and not take to the streets no matter how unhappy they are with Putin. What is more, the reformers may severely compromise their prospects by putting forward leaders of yesteryear instead of younger more dynamic ones who are responsible for rapidly changing circumstances in contemporary Russia. Nonetheless, Putin would be mistaken to think that he can cling to the status quo and still modernize Russia; like his Soviet predecessors, he does not have answers to Russia’s myriad problems and he needs the energy, enterprise and skills that the burgeoning middle-class protestors possess.  It may be foolhardy to predict with precision their near-term prospects but something of consequence is abroad in Russia today.

Turning to relations with the West, the question is not what Putin says at the February Munich security conference, but more concretely does he really believe what he says. In this connection, consider what he said in 2007 when the international media highlighted his assault on the U.S. in a blistering condemnation of Washington. Then Putin raised eyebrows when he proclaimed that Russia would no longer tolerate American domination of a unipolar world where it reigned as “sovereign.” The American hegemon had abused its powers globally and was “urging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” Naturally, editors featured these toxic words in their coverage of his speech. In the process they ignored additional conciliatory comments about his desire to work with George W. Bush in negotiating mutually beneficial arms control agreements. There is a lesson here for Putin: his harsh words may not presage tough actions but in these troubled times they may resonate with special force in Western capitals.

Putin’s anti-American rhetoric may be designed to win him popular support at home, but prudent voices in the Kremlin must know it is a useless exercise since a growing number of Russians are losing patience with his rule, so blaming foreigners for his regime’s difficulties is short-sighted. He should recall that several months ago Colonel Muammar Qaddafi tried this gambit to no avail, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is presently following the late Libyan dictator’s example  with little prospect that the outcome will be in his favor.

Putin needs a working relationship with the West if he is to address Russia’s daunting problems. Toward this end, he should cooperate with the Americans and Europeans in spite of myriad points of discord with them. For example, like Obama, he does not want to see the Taliban return to power, so he should find areas of cooperation with Washington on this critical matter. What some may see as the origins of a civil war in Kazakhstan—a country heretofore deemed the most stable of the five Central Asian states—is just the latest indicator that Russia has more to lose than America should things turn out badly in Afghanistan. Participants in a recent meeting of the CSTO expressed concern about Washington establishing permanent bases in Central Asia when they should ponder just how problematic a wholesale American exit from the region would be for them.

That said, the road ahead for the reset is likely to be a rough ride made even more precarious by two presidential elections in 2012. For his part, Putin would be serving his fellow citizens well were he to enlarge the field of genuine democratic politics next March and allow any Russian citizen to run for president. In turn, should Obama fail in his bid for re-election, the prospects for rebooting the reset are grim.

Dick Krickus is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington and has held the H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University.