Today's question: Russia is in the G-8 but not the World Trade Organization. Should membership in those bodies be contingent on Russia's behavior? Or is bringing Russia into those bodies the way to improve Moscow's behavior? Previously, Meier and Moynihan discussed NATO's eastward expansion and the extent to which Russia wants to exert control over former Soviet republics.

How to dampen Putin's thuggery

Michael, since everyone in L.A. and Washington seemed to be watching the Dodgers or Hillary Clinton last night, let's try a first-pitch swing today: Should we keep the Russians in the G-8 and bring them into the World Trade Organization? My answer is an emphatic yes. Allow me, by way of a brief historical excursion, to explain.

Let's begin with a pop quiz. How did Vladimir Putin, a ne'er-do-well KGB officer whose chief foreign posting was Dresden (where by all accounts he did little but service Stasi agents and gain 20 pounds on East German beer), become Russia's greatest leader since Stalin? Your multiple-choice options:

A. He was a Soviet-trained lawyer whose innate genius and latent leadership skills were stifled by glasnost, perestroika and the post-Soviet embrace of the free market and were just waiting for an opportune moment -- say, the murder of uncounted thousands in Chechnya -- to bloom.

B. The price of Siberian crude surprised everyone from Baku to Houston, rising from a low of $10 a barrel to upward of $140 within a decade.

C. A whole slew of Western leaders rushed to embrace the new Slavic Boomer in the Kremlin.

Most people will argue that A and B are the obvious answers. But I think, Michael, if you give me another paragraph to pull this trigger, you'll see that an equally convincing answer is C. And you'll see why, oddly enough, I say bring the Russians in.

Putin, despite his stunning and historic on-the-job evolution, is a thug. Just read his first-person "memoirs." It's all there: the brutish childhood, the instinct to lunge for the jugular, the small man's taste for macho aggression and the teary-eyed view of the way things once were back in Leningrad under the brief but glorious rule of Yuri Andropov.

I've known Russian mobsters, including the godfather of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Kumarin. And many of the St. Petersburg "authorities," as the criminal bosses are called, knew Putin from his days there in the early 1990s when he ran foreign investment for the city. Putin's one of us, they'd say. He negotiates, he deals, he talks our talk.

Allow me just a couple of Putin's best retorts from the gutter. There was one in Brussels in 2002 at a summit of European Union leaders when a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde dared ask about the blood bath in Chechnya. Putin shot back an ugly reply that made his translator blush: "If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We're a multi-denominational country. We've got specialists in this question as well. And I'll recommend that he carry out the operation in such a way that afterward nothing will grow back."

At another EU summit in Finland in 2006, one of Putin's non-constituents was dumb enough to pose a real question, this time, about the rise of organized crime in Putin's backyard. Putin fired a single round, point-blank, in the direction of then-Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi: "Mafia, I believe, is an Italian word, not Russian."

These moments, unlike Boris Yeltsin's infamous gaffes, were not blunders. What's instructive to remember about these moments on the world stage -- the place where Putin so wanted to be and where he was so warmly welcomed time and again -- was the Western response. Each time, the European leaders stood mum. And President Bush? He was caught in the headlights too often to recount here.

So how can the West now begin to try to tame Putin's worst instincts? The same way it helped to build him into a world-class leader: Widen the circle of East-West cooperation and invite the Russians in. They are nominally "in" the G-8, though half the world still calls it the G-7. But they'd love to be in the WTO and a host of other big-league clubs. Would their inclusion influence Russian behavior? Of course.

The WTO, like the Olympics, has rules. And rules, especially for post-adolescents with little worldly (or work) experience who inherit gazillions overnight, tend to be a good thing. Look at the mess in the Caucasus. What has all the tough talk about preserving Georgian sovereignty yielded? For starters, the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and almost surely, the beginning of the end of Mikheil Saakashvili's presidency. But above all, the bluster of Bush and company has stripped NATO naked (far faster than Putin and his ex-KGB mates ever could) and revealed its impotency to the world.

So tell me, Michael, as the folks in the White House and in the McCain and Obama camps assay the options for the road ahead, how can any half-sentient strategist argue in favor of opposition and exclusion?

Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, "The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service."