Strength or Vulnerability? Analyzing Vladimir Putin’s Munich Speech

Observers of Russian affairs have been quite busy this week discussing President Vladimir Putin’s scathing indictment of U.S. foreign policy last weekend at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. I’ve taken a few days to absorb the comments and consider the international response before posting my analysis.

His comments were angry, blunt, hyperbolic, undiplomatic, and, worst of all, for the most part they were seemingly correct and legitimate grievances. It is a true pity that recent foreign policy of not only the United States but also Europe gives Putin the chance to debate ethics and question the rule book.

However, bravado is not the same as leadership, and upon closer examination, one can see this speech as riddled with inconsistencies (as catalogued by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal).

For example, Russia could also be accused of many of Putin’s central complaints – being a destabilizing force through numerous arms deals with rogue nations, or disaggregating Germany’s foreign policy through his proxy Gerhard Schroeder.

Predictably, the reactions to this speech are falling into the usual camps – those who think Putin’s opprobrium and economy of diplomacy was a sign of oil-fed strength and hubris (the brash entrance of a new global power to the world stage), and those who believe the vitriol was more indicative of instability, pre-election nerves, and fear.

For those who need reminding, I include a video news excerpt and some of the choicest bits of text below.

The entire speech transcript can be read here.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. This conference’s format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems. And if my comments seem unduly polemical, pointed or inexact to our colleagues, then I would ask you not to get angry with me. After all, this is only a conference.

And I hope that after the first two or three minutes of my speech Mr Teltschik will not turn on the red light over there. … Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s – and precisely in today’s – world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilisation. …

Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished. … Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.

As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible. We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law.

And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

Putin’s rancor and hostility toward the United States in this speech is not as sudden nor as unexpected as many in the media are making it appear, but rather has been slowing building over recent months.

First he committed numerous callous gaffes in response to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, only later to be faced with the accusations following the murder of Litvinenko, and his truculent attitude toward the investigation requests of Scotland Yard.

Adding to the unease of the West, the Kremlin continued its policies of energy extortion against both Belarus as well as Royal Dutch Shell (and possibly BP next), and for good measure slapped Mikhail Khodorkovsky with additional accusations so preposterous no creditable institution would even consider the possible merit.

After exchanging some tough words over the U.S. installation of missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Putin’s speech in Munich represented only the logical extension of this confrontational trend. All of the incidents listed above could have been handled with greater care and deeper cooperation with the international community, but choices were made by the Russian leadership according to strategic expediency.

The aggressive tone of the speech and the fond memories expressed for the days of the Cold War should not have come as a surprise to anyone well versed in the dominant current of thought in the Russian government.

In many ways, the politics of the newly empowered Russian state does not have any defined objective to strive for as a society nor any ideological goal (as argued by Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books), and into this vacuum an illusory goal is being constructed to simply lift the state back to an image of great power status, with its horns locked with the United States in permanent detente.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the kinds of documents circulating the Kremlin. One seminal document we obtained this past summer entitled “On a Likely Scenario of Actions by the United States Toward Russia 2006-2008“, is particularly illustrative of the overwhelming suspicion with which Russia views the United States.

Prepared by Valentin Falin and Gennady Yevstaviev, this paper was widely distributed to State Duma deputies last September, and by all appearances, Putin is merely following its recommendations and preparing his foreign policy to defend against these perceived threats. To defend Russia’s “sovereignty” and prevent any American influence in its near abroad, the paper argues that democracy, civil society, international law, human rights, and corruption standards are merely points of weakness that the Americans would exploit to create another Orange Revolution.

This paper epitomizes the unfortunate perspective that many high-ranking Russian officials hold toward genuine political competition and open societies – rather than ideal goals to pursue they are seen as security threats (threats to their grip on power, anyways). So with this in mind, we can turn back to Putin’s speech in Munich. To what audience were these messages meant to be communicated?

Clearly, if the president is being honest, and truly desires a Cold War international atmosphere over the flawed but largely functioning Pax Americana of “unipolarism,” he must have been sorely disappointed by the tepid reaction of Robert Gates, who saw the cheap provocation for what it was and calmly replied, “One Cold War was quite enough.”

But far more important than the smug satisfaction of giving Uncle Sam a good jab, is considering what Putin would get out of such extreme comments? It is my view that far from the international confidence and muscle of a president getting fat on oil revenues, this speech was a worrying symptom of weakness, instability, and fear.

Challenging the foolish Middle East policies of a deeply unpopular, outgoing president who lacks support even at home may have been an easy way to make some quick friends abroad, but the real audience for this power pageant was Russia itself.

It is incredibly difficult to get a reliable sense of the competing powers within the Kremlin, but there have been numerous indications that with the upcoming elections Putin’s influence could be slipping as contenders jockey for position behind Russia’s next leader. One of the more popular theories behind the Litvinenko murder mystery is that rogue elements within the FSB carried out the job to force Putin to stay in office. As Russia expert Anders Aslund points out in a new column, Putin realizes he is at the peak of his power:

“…things can only get worse. He no doubt realizes that it would be best for him to resign after two terms, but he has painted himself into a corner. His only apparent option is to stay on as president. Even if Putin were to become chairman of the Constitutional Court and tried to impose his professed “dictatorship of the law,” he could not control the country because of insurmountable strife among his former underlings. The fundamental problem is that Russia no longer possesses institutions that can grant legitimacy to any successor.”

So really when it comes down to it, it can be argued that Putin has lambasted the United States for undermining global stability as a measure to bolster Russia’s own perilous political stability. By attacking the United States with dramatic showmanship and poetic embellishment, Putin may be looking to instill some discipline in his restless ranks, earn some political capital, and buy some time. There are certainly other possibilities, but I would credit the president with knowing that this would be the only guaranteed outcome of the speech.