A breeze of Cold War

Vladimir Putin in Munich (2007): "The US has overstepped its national borders in almost all spheres" (Photo: MSC / Mörk).

Vladimir Putin's inflammatory speech terrifies the audience at the Munich Security Conference 2007.


By Oliver Rolofs


The audience at the Munich Security Conference 2007 was most eager to hear the speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, hardly any of the conference participants expected that Mr. Putin's fiery speech would stir up the conference venue at the "Hotel Bayerischer Hof" the way they did. In a dramatic way, he vigorously warned the audience against the United States' global supremacy, declared the eastward expansion of NATO a provocation and threatened that Russia had weapons on hand that could neutralise the anti-missile defence shield planned to be installed by the US in Eastern Europe.


Prior to his speech, the senior politicians from the fields of foreign affairs and defence were still cheerful. However, the following remark made by Mr. Putin, who participated for the first time in the Munich Security Conference, made them sit up and take notice: Mr. Putin said he hoped that Mr. Teltschik, then-Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, would not turn off the microphone during his speech. He announced that he was going to make clear his real position on international security challenges without any "diplomatic inhibitions." Shortly after, he started his almost 20-minute speech on "the Russian role in international politics". He came to the point immediately. The casual ambiance in the conference hall noticeably cooled down when Mr. Putin launched a rhetoric attack from the very beginning of his speech. The faces of the American delegates in the front row started to freeze soon. They already expected to be hearing harsh words in the next few minutes. The overall criticism voiced by Mr. Putin about the status of the international system was directly aimed at them. Mr. Putin criticized the United States' monopolistic status quo seeking "global predominance through a system which had nothing in common with democracy." He continued by telling the conference participants that everybody in the Western world was keen to teach Russia about democracy, however, the Westerners did not want to learn themselves.


Massive criticism raised against the US


Mr. Putin continued by criticising that the end of the Cold War had produced by far more casualties and armed conflicts than ever before. In his opinion the attempt to resolve problems by unilateral action caused human tragedies. "We are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations." According to Mr. Putin, this force caused disdain for the basic principles of international law and stimulated a new arms race in the world. Stunned, the conference participants stared at the podium. Putin continued: "The US has overstepped its national borders in almost all spheres." He asked - "Who could be pleased with this?" - and added that "nobody can feel secure" in this political landscape.


Warning against US anti-missile shield and expansion of NATO to the East


Mr. Putin went on attacking the Western world. According to Mr. Putin, US plans to deploy an anti-missile defence shield in Eastern Europe equalled an arms race not beneficial for Europe. He could not see the benefits of such a defence capability, as it would remain ineffective against Russia anyway. Mr. Putin pointed out: "We have weapons on hand which can neutralize this shield." In the subsequent round of discussions, Mr. Putin stated on the dispute about the US anti-missile defence shield that the Charter of the United Nations would, ultimately, also give Russia the inherent right to defend itself in the case of an escalation of the situation.


In addition, the Russian President massively criticized the expansion of NATO to the East. In his speech, he ask countries to keep NATO's promise not to deploy troops to East Germany. With reference to the call for NATO membership of former Warsaw Pact countries, he directly addressed the conference audience by asking: "And where is this guarantee now?" The President explicitly warned the audience that NATO's continued pursuit of expansion to the East was apt to "provoke" his country and lower mutual confidence. "New dividing lines and walls are intended to be imposed on us, which, again, will cut through the continent."


Announcement of a Russian comeback?


Notwithstanding the traditional open dialogue practices at the Munich Security Conference - such an open-mindedness was demonstrated on rare occasions only by politicians in Munich. The Russian President must have even terrified those participants who, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, had longed for a long time for a response by Russia to its humiliating role of a declining world power. Now, this response had been given. A breeze of Cold War was in the air through the Hotel Bayerischer Hof for the rest of the conference day. The alerting call by Moscow was aimed at demonstrating the more important role of Russia on the global stage and supposed to be a warning to other countries not to make unilateral, go-it-alone approaches in international relations. Mr. Putin successfully achieved this aim. Did, however, everybody understand his warning? While some sceptical security strategists predicted a noticeable rupture in the relationship between NATO and Russia and “the beginning of a new Cold War,” US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, among others, refuted such assumptions the next day. He tried to alleviate confrontations through humour. "Former spies usually come straight to the point. However, one Cold War was enough," Mr. Gates stated. He underlined the fact that they all shared many common problems and challenges which had to be tackled in a spirit of partnership together with other countries including Russia. This seemed to be rather a helpless appeal. Mr. Gates did not seriously take up Mr. Putin's speech. However, in summer 2008, at the latest, the harsh words spoken by the Russian President were remembered - when, in the wake of the Caucasus crisis, Russia, which had grown stronger through the global boom in energy, became a driving force in bringing about the decisive turning point in the relationship with the Western world. Those who had voiced scepticism in 2007 turned out to be right in some way. One year after Mr. Putin had delivered his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Russia once again issued an indirect warning against go-it-alone foreign policy approaches, this time in more conciliatory tones. The First Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergej Ivanov, stated on the forthcoming independence of Kosovo: "A unilateral declaration of independence will open Pandora's box in the Caucasus." The speech delivered by Mr. Putin in 2007 was not only a liberation strike launched by Russia, but also the harbinger of a serious crisis in Russian-Western relations.