If Russia eventually reverts to a full-blown autocratic regime, it is not inconceivable that tension and competition once again will define Russian-American relations. At this critical moment in Russia's internal development, American foreign policy makers cannot afford to be disengaged.
The soundest strategy for both American and Russian policymakers is to carve a middle position between obsessive engagement and active disengagement. Russian and American leaders have to define a United States–Russian relationship that neither rekindles cold war rivalry nor refuels illusions about alliances and special relationships. More distance than a decade ago might be healthy for the bilateral relationship. Too much distance will be dangerous.
During the Yeltsin years, it became fashionable in the West to cite Russia's weak state as the source of Russia's ills. Putin has demonstrated after only a few months in office that the Russian federal state still has tremendous power—perhaps too much power—if the man in control of that state is vigorous, ambitious, and popular.