MUNICH. — The annual meeting of defense and foreign-policy eminences here is usually devoted to a fair amount of carping from one side of the Atlantic to the other. It’s the place NATO allies go to bicker among themselves. This year, however, was different, producing a rare moment of trans-Atlantic unity, brought to you, bizarrely, by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The 43-year-old Wehrkunde conference had its origins at the height of the Cold War, when the main security challenge faced by those who came was Russia in its incarnation as the Soviet Union. Czech and Polish foreign ministers used to have to go to drab Warsaw Pact meetings in Minsk, or wherever, rather than the Wehrkunde conference in Munich. Estonia didn’t have a president speaking thoughtfully from the dais, or a president at all, Estonia and its Baltic sisters having been occupied and turned against their will into constituent parts of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We’ve come a long way since then, all to the good.
Still, the notion of the Russian leader speaking at the premier Western conference on security policy, viewed in historical context, is one of those “who would ever have thought” moments.
I’ll have to admit I was concerned about Mr. Putin’s appearance, though not out of Cold War nostalgia. Although he was elected to the office he holds and is popular at home, his Russia has become increasingly autocratic. The news out of Moscow in recent years has told tales of the shutdown of rival centers of political power, the elimination of independent news outlets, measures curtailing the independence of the nongovernmental sector, even the murder of journalists still trying to ask tough questions. Surfing the recent highs in the price of oil, Mr. Putin has lately taken to asserting that Russia is back, strong again and independent-minded in its pursuit of a strategy of energy-based nationalism.
Now, this is no Cold War posture. Moscow isn’t strong enough to get a new one going even if it wanted to. But Mr. Putin’s Russia plainly does want to assert its influence on its “near abroad” and is willing to try to use its energy resources as a political weapon to persuade others to its point of view. And I wondered, as he ascended the podium in Munich, if his engagement in the dialogue there would be met with a reception eager to accommodate his expanding sense of Russian interests at the expense of the prospects for Western integration of such new nations as Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Would Munich this year be an attenuated version of Munich 1938, with the aspirations of small states sacrificed to appease a stronger local power playing by different rules? The remarks that came out of Mr. Putin’s mouth at first seemed to invite exactly such a conclusion. He clearly relished the platform, and with a little prelude in which he said he welcomed the opportunity to speak without “excessive politeness,” he launched zestily into a denunciation of the United States and the Atlantic alliance, the hypocrisy by which they cloak their nakedly self-interested actions in a mantle of principle they do not practice, and in particular the ill treatment Russia has suffered at the hands of an arrogant West.
Mr. Putin described a U.S. attempt to create a “unipolar” order in which sovereignty belonged to the United States alone, a single source for power, force and decision-making. He railed against the “hyper-use of force, military force, in international relations” and against the “unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions” of the United States. He called the enlargement of NATO a failure and suggested it was directed against Russia, accused the United States of pursuing through its missile defense programs a “nuclear imbalance” that would give Washington a “free hand in global conflict,” and justified Russia’s work on a new generation of nuclear weapons as a response to an arms race the United States started.
There was more, much more, and by the time he finished, an audience that was largely prepared, per my misgivings, to welcome him warmly and to embrace his unprecedented accession to participation in the Western security dialogue was instead knocked back and reeling. What other leader of a supposedly strong and re-emerging global power would take such a forum as the occasion to launch into a self-absorbed litany of complaint, grievance and defensive accusation bordering at times on paranoia? Even those in the room with serious misgivings about U.S. power and the legitimacy of American action, and there were plenty, heard from Mr. Putin a critique they could never embrace as legitimate on its own terms.
The blowback was instantaneous, in a question-and-answer session that sharply challenged, among other things, Mr. Putin’s anti-democratic policies, his disregard for human rights and his assistance to the Iranian nuclear program. It continued into the hallways after he left the stage.
Whatever the advance hopes for Mr. Putin as a new partner in a security dialogue, he incinerated them in a spectacular act of self-immolation. It brought a troubled partnership back together, not in opposition to him, but in support of common values that he quite flamboyantly doesn’t share.