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A new cold war? Don’t believe the hype

Putin MissileIf you believe the hype, Vladimir Putin’s speech in Munich this weekend was little more than a declaration of a new Cold War.  If you look more closely, though, it’s little more than a reminder to the world that Russia’s foreign policy is based on realism – something we’ve known for a long, long time.

Seriously, apart from the tone, was there anything in this speech that actually surprised anyone?  Here’s my summary of the speech:

  • Russia wants a multipolar world, and believes in realpolitik.
  • Unilateral actions make Russia nervous – lets all abide by the UN Charter.
  • The dominance of the US is a threat to world security, and is in danger of sparking an arms race.
  • Russia wants to take an active part in the global community and the international marketplace, but feels that there is often one rule for Russia, another for the rich.
  • Russia will defend its interests.

And here’s the full transcript of Putin’s speech, for those of you with time to kill.

I was actually quite impressed in a way by Putin’s assertiveness.  To me, it seemed to demonstrate that, while Putin knows that Russia isn’t the power that the Soviet Union once was and certainly lags behind the West in many ways, he is confident that Russia’s position in the world today is secure, and that it is a country on the way back up.  His conclusion, I thought, encapsulated Russia’s growing confidence and – whisper it – self awareness:

“Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.

We are not going to change this tradition today. At the same time, we are well aware of how the world has changed and we have a realistic sense of our own opportunities and potential.”

I also found it interesting that, in amongst the criticism Putin doled out to the United States, he also found the time to rap China on the knuckles for testing whether one of its missiles could destroy a satellite in space.

There were problems with the speech, of course.  It was very noticeable that, although Putin took care to tell the world that violence would not solve the world’s problems, he wasn’t able to come up with any constructive alternatives.  And, of course, while he was happy to stick the boot in during criticism of other countries’ military ventures and abuses, he pretty much ignored Russia’s own failings.  (But, then again, how many countries’ Presidents these days actually take pains to flagellate themselves in front of international audiences.  I can’t think of many).

Overall, though, I’m happy to see that Putin felt able to be blunt.  It’s not the start of a new cold war, but it is clear that not every country in the world shares the same worldview, and that Putin feels that Russia has the opportunity to become a standard bearer of sorts for countries who share one particular worldview. 

I actually found the speech quite refreshing.


  • I think you are dramatically underestimating the importance of what you call “hype.” You can dismiss it as ill-founded all you like, but the fact is that the the world is incensed by what Putin said and girding for Cold War with Russia. In that sense, his remarks were as ill-advised as those of Nikita Krushchev at the UN. They will serve to galvanize the world against Russia at a time when it was already facing a major public relations nightmare because of the Litvinenko killing, and that’s the action of a moron not an enlightened statesman.

    Instead of doing things to put the world at ease after Litvinenko, Putin chooses confrontation. Either he didn’t know how his remarks would be viewed, in which case he’s a total idiot, or he did know, in which case he’s irresponsible and evil.

    I bet Krushchev saw his speech much as you see Putin’s. What did that matter? Soon there was a major escalation in the Cold War and not long after that the USSR ceased to exist. Once again, we see Russia sacrificing its best interests on the alter of pride — indeed, of arrogance and wilde-eyed nationalism.

  • But, looking on the bright side – at least Putin didn’t take his shoe off and bang it on the desk 🙂

    I really do think that all this talk of Cold Wars is ill-advised, though. It would be absurd to imagine that Russia wouldn’t have interests to protect, and that sometimes they might diverge in places. And to expect them not to be assertive in the defense of those interests is little more than naive. A speech like this has been coming for some time – if anything, I’m surprised it took so long.

    As for Gates speech, I thought it was a measured and relatively balanced response, if slightly bland. I thought he was particularly wise to note that relations between allies during the Cold War were not without their tensions, and he did well to resist the temptation to have a go at Russia – apart from one small dig: “we wonder, too, about some Russian policies that seem to work against international stability, such as its arms transfers and its temptation to use energy resources for political coercion.”

  • But on the dark side, Krushchev didn’t have the example of (a) Krushchev and (b) the fall of the USSR to have learned from! Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on PUTIN!

    In the context of the Litvinenko killing and Russia’s massive Soviet-style military buildup

    notwithstanding its massive demographic crisis, Putin’s provocatory remarks are quite insane. He should be trying to put the outside world at ease in light of the buildup and the killing, but just like his Soviet forbears he does the opposite. He has nothing to gain from making such remarks and everything to lose.

    No matter what you think Russia’s geopolitical “interests” may be, no matter what “right” Russia may have to defend them, it doesn’t matter because it can’t AFFORD to do so. What good does it do Russia to stand up for geopolitical “interests” if in so doing it polarizes the outside world against it and makes it even more difficult to solve pressing social emergencies? No good at all. Putin is a maniac, the worst possible thing for Russia, and history will show this to be so.

    Is it really in Russia’s interests to sacrifice itself in order to rid the world of the evil that is America?

  • I might say I think you are misreading Gates. This is a hardened cold warrior and he said all he needed to before Munich, while testifying before the House Armed Services Comittee. There, he lumped Russia together with rogue states like Iran and North Korea, and Russia has issued a formal diplomatic protest as a result:

    Gates has got it going on.

    By the way, if La Russophobe tells you she is delighted with Putin’s Munich address, what does that tell you about how far it advanced Russia’s interests?

  • Seeing Gates’s response sort of reminded me of how the US responded to Hugo Chavez’s aggressive UN speech (when he said the room still smelled like sulfur after the devil – George Bush).

    In response to such hyperbole, they decided to take the high road and assume (correctly) that the exaggerated rhetoric would backfire and lose him more friends than it would gain.

    In regards to Putin, for example, it isn’t clear which audience he is winning over, and which one he is scaring the hell out of. Everyone is focusing on his criticism of the American invasion of Iraq – which is like fish in a barrel (who in the international community would ever defend such a preposterous choice?). But more importantly, Putin’s comments on NATO were way beyond what anyone was expecting, and for those of us with friends in Eastern Europe, these words are taken very seriously.

    I’m not trying to defend recent U.S. foreign policy, but it is somewhat hypocritical for Putin to say they are the only ones destabilizing the world when he is busy doling out arms to rouge nations like Iran and Syria.

    I think we all agree that Russia has a new, enlarged role in international affairs, and I think they are still feeling out what they can and can’t do and say.

  • JAMES:

    Indeed so, and even more hypocritical is Putin’s attacking American unilaterism while erecting a unilateral state in Russia.

    Just when people were wondering whether it’s possible to rely on a word Putin says, he conclusively proves it isn’t. But then, Russia is so great that it doesn’t need people or their trust, right?

  • Mind you, when the headline “Putin launches assault on the West” (thanks, BBC) refers to him making a speech critical of the US, things can’t be too bad.

  • Alas, La Russophobe seems to believe that she is (a) the world and (b) of any consequence whatseoever. She is incensed, but the caravan moves on nonetheless. For her to believe that her take on Russian actions has any impact on that achievement of its strategic goals bears witness only to the monstrous dimensions of her delusions of grandeur, or even relevance.

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