Either Vladimir Putin is getting very good at taking advantage of the general distraction of the U.S. by economic issues, or perhaps President Obama is just an unusually easy target.

Seasoned Russia scholar Nina Khrushcheva, descendant of the former Soviet dictator, calls Obama a “sucker” and writes scathingly of America’s so-called Russia policy:

Vice President Joe Biden, usually a sharp critic of Russia, arrived in Moscow in March, supposedly to convince Mr. Putin to surrender his presidential ambitions. A month later, Mr. Biden invited him to visit Washington, though, according to Russia’s constitution, the prime minister has no foreign policy role. Does the United States support Mr. Putin, or, by recognizing his historic importance, do they mean to convince him to leave power? No one knows.

When people began to complain about the autocratic power Putin was wielding as president, Putin responded by simply “stepping down” and replacing himself with a defenseless sycophant named Dmitri Medvedev (who has just proclaimed he will not seek a second term if Putin wants his job). Putin then boldly declared he had proven the presidency was a viable democratic institution, and the world (especially Obama) began dealing with Medvedev just as if that were true.

More recently, the world has begun to notice that the Russian parliament, called the Duma, is a farce. Putin had driven every single member of every pro-democracy party out of the legislature, and even some Russians were beginning to cry foul.

Putin’s response was swift. First he had Medvedev give an interview with the Financial Times and openly admit how terrible the problem was. Then he had his pet oligarch, New Jersey Nets owner and the world’s 32nd richest man Mikhail Prokhorov, announce he was founding a new party to fight for legislative autonomy.

In doing so, Putin hoped nobody would notice his refusal to allow registration of a new party founded by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and senior ex-legislator Vladimir Ryzhkov. Or that — just to make sure Prokhorov was no less submissive than Medvedev — Putin had just sent Prokhorov’s fellow oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky back to prison, seemingly forever.  Khodorkovsky is the last person to seriously challenge Putin’s authority in public.

Putin appears to have recognized that while mere words about democracy mean nothing in Russia, they seem to mean a great deal in the West. He realizes that just hearing flowery phrases that seem to indicate sensitivity to democratic concerns may well be enough to placate clueless Western leaders, leaving him free to implement actual policy just as he pleases.

The Obama State Department said it was disappointed and troubled by the attack on Kasyanov, and the Kremlin quickly responded that Kasyanov was free to try again. But neither Hillary Clinton nor Obama himself have thrown their weight behind the bill pending in Congress to block the worst Russian human rights abusers from entry to the U.S. — on the contrary, they’ve seemed open to lobbying efforts by those very offenders against the bill. And no other tangible policy has been suggested which might actually punish Russia for the worst of its anti-democratic purges.

Prokhorov’s public statements are noteworthy because he specifically states that his party should not be considered an opposition party, and because he focuses his ire on the presidency, which Putin does not currently occupy. It would not surprise me in the least to see Putin step forward in coming days and claim that he must return to the presidency because Medvedev has seized too much power and relegated the legislature to a figurehead role. Putin has every legal right to take back presidential power for the next twelve years, and it would probably delight him to no end to do so under the guise of a democratic putsch.

I think Obama might well be foolish (or cowardly) enough to applaud such a move, or at least to stand mute while Putin rolls down a new iron curtain just a bit closer to Moscow this time. But no Republican appears to be any wiser. Republicans have not proven they have a real understanding of the dangers posed by the Putin dictatorship, much less that they have the courage to demand that Obama face him down. Nevermind Republicans appeasers of Putin such as Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan.

The party must remember the legacy of Ronald Reagan and produce a leader who can do the right thing on Russia.