The Honeymoon Is Over
But Putin's speech is unlikely to mark a major shift in relations between the United States and Russia.
11:00 PM, Feb 21, 2007 • By IGOR KHRESTIN
IT MAY NOT have been Churchill's Fulton speech, but President Putin's harsh rebuke to Pax America in Munich on February 10, seems to have struck a raw nerve in Washington.
Said the Russian President: "It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day, this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign because it destroys itself from within." Ominously, Putin added: "But do we have the means to counter these threats? Certainly we do."
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who otherwise justified Putin's scolding on NATO's eastward expansion, perhaps best summed up the prevailing mood: "Just when we need to be getting Russia's help, we're getting its revenge."
But merciless rhetoric aside, does Putin's Munich address signify the death knell for the US-Russia post-9/11 rapprochement?
Hardly. Although Putin's speech is the most audacious foreign policy statement of his administration to date, it does not indicate a significant shift in policy.
The 2000 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved by Putin shortly after his ascendance to the presidency, similarly iterated that "a trend is growing toward establishment of a unipolar world structure that would be dominated by the United States," while Russia would "seek to achieve a multipolar system of international relations." Though couched in diplomatic language, the document went on to oppose NATO expansion and the "partition" of Serbia, but to support continued cooperation with Iran while "restoring and strengthening" Russia's position in the Middle East.
In essence, the laundry list of policy irritants has remained the same on both sides. Yet, both Washington and Moscow have nonetheless cooperated on many issues, including nuclear non-proliferation, energy security, and counternarcotics. Though several prominent American politicians--such as Senator John McCain--have called for Russia's exclusion from the G-8, the group's meeting in St. Petersburg this summer resulted in a host of agreements on a broad range of global concerns. And after many years of haggling, Russia seems poised finally to enter the World Trade Organization.
Thus, the parting of ways after the 9/11 "honeymoon" in U.S.-Russian affairs seems more predicated on an inevitable values clash. Setting aside the incompatible political systems and the failure to integrate Russia into Atlantic institutions, the Bush administration's fervent adherence to the "democratic peace" theory has run counter to the Kremlin's cold, realpolitik calculations. As such, the Russians balk at what they perceive to be American hegemonic impulses in its own backyard, which have included support for the "color revolutions," a Congressional resolution supporting the entry of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and the recent stationing of U.S. military hardware in former Warsaw Pact states.
While Putin has the right to ask the "against whom" question, the United States has firmly reserved the right to point out the new geopolitical realities of the post-Cold War era: Kiev, Tbilisi, and Riga are no longer Russian vassal entities, but sovereign states. Their choice of government, leaders, and foreign policy is entirely independent of what Moscow might wish that choice to be. While the Russian state (or by extension, the Gazprom energy monopoly) no longer has to subsidize the economies of post-Soviet states, it must respect their sovereignty.
Putin, the Munich "shoe-bang" moment aside, realizes that openly hostile competition with the West is not only undesirable for his goal of "restoring Russia's greatness," but simply impossible. Economically, notwithstanding the impressive growth of recent years, per capita GDP has just returned to pre-1990 transition levels. Russia's military spending, even taking into account purchasing power parity, is at least ten times lower than that of the United States.
In one of the brighter moments in Munich, President Putin reiterated willingness to work with the West and even reaffirmed his personal affinity for President Bush. The latter returned the gesture at the White House press-conference on February 14, noting that Putin's tirade revealed the "complicated nature" of U.S.-Russia relations, but calling for the "spirit of cooperation" to continue.
That Putin and Bush can get along on a personal level has little implication for policy. After the Munich conference, Putin went on a Middle East tour in an attempt to strengthen Russian influence in areas where the American approach has faltered. The United States, for its part, will actively strive to deter Russia from aiding and abetting Iran's nuclear ambitions, while NATO military installations in Eastern Europe will remain in place.