- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In contrast to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ excellent and well-received rejoinder, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive criticism this weekend that the United States has “overstepped its national borders in every way” and “stimulat[ed] and arms race” didn’t seem to play all that well with other European politicians in attendance at the security conference in Munich. And with good reason — the critiques were more political than substantive.

Mr. Putin listed several grievances, but the focus was on two primary themes: American hegemony and NATO expansion. He said it was time to “seriously think about the architecture of global security” and trumpeted a multipolar world. But would the Russian president apply his dictum that “the use of force can only be legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the U.N.” to Russian action in Chechnya? Not likely. The emphasis on balancing U.S. power smacked more of an announcement of a resurgent Russia, in the guise of an affinity for international law. In his speech in Munich, Mr. Putin, whose profound displeasure with the collapse of the Soviet Union is well known, re-emphasized his desire to see a return of a Russian superpower to the world stage.

On NATO expansion — an enlargement which may come to include Ukraine and Georgia — Mr. Putin’s comments reflect the aroused ire in the Kremlin, which will always regard the post-Soviet space as an area in which it is entitled to special influence. Despite the political impact, “NATO enlargement has certainly not damaged Russian security in any serious way,” said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in a meeting on Monday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Mr. Putin also assailed U.S. plans to put troops in Bulgaria and Romania. He claimed that “NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders” and asked “what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?” Overlooking the fact that neither Bulgaria nor Romania actually border Russia, Mr. Putin’s criticism still lacks merit. Although the Russian president did not mention it, ten years ago NATO formally adopted a policy that it would not permanently station significant combat forces beyond where it had them, and “what we’re considering in Romania and Bulgaria falls well under that because there aren’t hard traditional Cold War-style bases anyway,” Mr. Fried said.

Neither issue is new; NATO enlargement started 15 years ago and the world has been unipolar since the fall of the Soviet Union. And while criticisms from Mr. Putin is also familiar, it’s obvious that Russia’s substantial oil wealth has emboldened the increasingly autocratic Russian leader to pursue greater consolidation of power at home and become more assertive abroad. Mr. Gates rebuffed Mr. Putin in Munich by noting the “one Cold War was quite enough,” and indeed it’s hard to consider Mr. Putin’s speech without hearing those ominous and familiar overtones.

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