Vladimir Putin isn’t Josef Stalin; he isn’t even Leonid Brezhnev. But the once, present and future Russian president’s crackdown on dissent poses a challenge for the United States familiar to students of the Cold War: How to press for greater openness in Russia while engaging with it on important international issues? The answer now, as it was then, is not to allow the need for cooperation to stifle support for democracy.

Putin, the former KGB functionary who was elected president for the third time in March — after temporarily retreating to the office of prime minister — was outraged last month when sometimes violent demonstrations overshadowed his inauguration.

Outrageous as the government response was, these actions can’t compare with the oppression of the Soviet era, and Putin’s critics should be careful not to assert a false “immoral equivalence” between the old and new orders. The U.S.S.R. was a totalitarian regime that brooked virtually no dissent or democracy and that enforced its authority with a vast gulag. The current government realizes it cannot suppress dissent in the same brutal fashion.