It’s time for Obama to defy Putin

Far better than abandoning an encounter that, to judge by photographs, Putin is not looking forward to, Obama could turn it to his advantage. The president received flak from his own party when he said he admired Ronald Reagan. Now is the time for Obama’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” moment. He could start, like Reagan, by shrugging off his secret service detail and going walkabout to meet ordinary St. Petersburgers. As Reagan found, there is nothing like shaking hands and laughing with the Russian people to undermine anti-American propaganda…

The president could stress the absurdity of granting Snowden asylum by insisting on visiting Putin’s strongest adversary, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in prison on trumped up charges. He could invite Alexei Navalny to his hotel room and invite the press to hear about the anti-corruption campaigner’s experience in Russian prisons and why he thinks a Russian Spring is on the way. He could arrange a photo opportunity with the green campaigner Yevgeniya Chirikova, and dozens of other activists who are targeted by Putin’s secret police. He could welcome a group of gay Russians to talk about the laws that persecute them and to warn the world about the rights they will have to forego if they attend the Winter Olympics.

The president could do worse than give a keynote speech in St. Petersburg on human rights, and the abuse of democratic freedoms by spies posing as whistleblowers, rekindling the memory of the great generation of Soviet dissidents, Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, and inviting today’s Russian dissidents to sit in the front row. He could make a fuss of the veteran rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva and the president-in-waiting Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster strong-armed out of challenging Putin for the presidency. He might play mood music before his talk by Pussy Riot, two of whom remain in jail for daring to sing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral and have just had their parole turned down.