Vladimir Putin may faint with all this damned praise. He’s running for president on the tough-guy ticket. What does he need with sweet talk from the American secretary of state?

On January 2, Madeleine Albright identified Putin as a “prime reformer,” On January 18, she called him “one of [Russia’s] leading reformers … determined to move reform forward.” On February 2, after meeting him, she was “impressed [by his] can-do approach to the issues … his problem-solving approach.”

Perhaps Albright wants to give him a reputation to live up to. If so, he has a ways to go. He is sufficiently indifferent to “moving reform forward” to conclude a parliamentary alliance with the Communist Party. More to the point for the secretary of state, he has been steadfast in a hard-line, nationalistic, anti-Western foreign policy that is at the center of his domestic political alliance with the Russian military and security services.

It is true that Putin wants to repair the surface of Russia’s relations with the West. He has a strong interest in regaining opportunities for Western financial support. At a Moscow conference on Middle East peace, he told an audience of mainly Western foreign ministers that “Russia would like to be a stable, constructive and predictable partner in building a new Europe.” That is a good line, but not to be taken internally.

Partnership with the West is flatly at odds with the new national-security doctrine that Putin signed on to just three weeks ago. Russia’s idea of a “new Europe,” expressed in that doctrine and in countless speeches by Putin and others, is one that does not interfere with the restoration of Russian influence throughout the former Soviet Union. Specifically, it is a Europe with no NATO enlargement, no NATO activity in the Balkans, and no Western military, political, or economic links to the south Caucasus, the Caspian region, or Central Asia–what Putin calls “post-Soviet space.”

Ever since the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, Russia’s hardline military and security leaders have grown in political prominence. Their budgets have fattened. They are getting more weapons and better pay. The war in Chechnya gets them media play in the Soviet triumphal style. Conflict with the West is their fountain of fortune. Reconciliation with the West, except on Russian terms, cannot happen while the president relies on hardline support for his political standing.