Ilya Somin wrote a good summary of the opposition protests that occurred in Russia this weekend, in which Gary Kasparov was temporarily arrested (along with hundreds of others, who were also beaten), taking place in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Somin is certainly right to say that it's hard to be optimistic about the country's near-term political future given who is running it, but the statement before it reeks of optimism: "Hopefully, there will be enough of an international outcry to persuade Putin to desist and force him to tread more cautiously in the future."
It's hard for me to imagine that Western criticism of Putin's policies would ever cause him to change direction. Inherent to the nationalist nature of modern Russia is the idea that Western criticism is both an attack on the country's sovereignty as well as lower simply because of the source. The response last week to a U.S. State Department human rights report which listed a number of factual problems in Russia was fiercely blasted roundly. Now that the EU is criticizing the excessive police force used against the demonstrators, what do you think the response will be?
Thinking about Russia in the Cold War strategic pretext may not be totally applicable. For one, Western government will never take the necessary measures against Russia, or even heavily criticize it, because too many Western companies are invested there now. The recent opening of Russian state companies to initial public offerings on the London Stock Exchange has investors clamoring to get a piece of companies like Gazprom, though they retain little influence over these companies which make up the bulk of the Kremlin's financing power. What's terribly ironic is that American PR and lobbying firms are hired by these goons to make themselves look good despite what's really going on.
Beside that, Europe is completely bought out with Russian natural gas. Even if efforts to diversify bring Europe out from under its boot, Russia itself has a diversification plan that wasn't there during the Cold War -- China! So even if Europe decided to stop buying Russian gas, energy craving China who doesn't care about human rights one bit is right there willing to buy it all at a premium. Try to top that.
The West right now is in a terrible position to criticize Russia and make it reform. Putin's regime, while authoritarian and anti-democratic and illiberal, is lent legitimacy by his huge popularity as well as his powerful security forces that are bolstered by sky high energy prices. I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize and give moral support to the opposition, but this criticism is just used as propaganda by the regime to keep those numbers high.
What Europe needs to really concentrate on is figuring out how to get what it needs without having to use Putin to get it. Minimizing its own indirect support for Putin will give it much more leeway to actually do something about human rights there. Meanwhile, the only way that this regime will be dismantled is if the people of Russia themselves stop supporting it. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon, and even if they did, it is not completely apparent that the KGB masterminds behind it are willing to give it up just like that.
Western criticism is nice, but really, it's just blowing into the wind.