February 13, 2007

February 13, 2007 | Commentary on Russia

Putin's Pique

Russian President Vladimir Putin went off on the United States and the West this past weekend in a keynote at a German security conference, claiming Washington and its European allies were jamming their agenda down the world's throat.

Sure, it could've been bluster. But what probably really torques Tsar Vlad off about the United States and the West supposedly forcing their will around the world is that it prevents the Soviet Union, er, Russia, from forcing its will on the world.

Old habits die hard, eh, comrade?

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates and nearly 40 other European foreign/defense ministers sat stunned, Putin said that the United States has overstepped its international rights, creating a dangerous "unipolar world" beset by war and insecurity.

He also said Russia doesn't need lessons in democracy - thank you very much. "People are always teaching us democracy, but the people who teach us democracy don't want to learn it themselves," Putin said, referring to the current nature of international politics.

He also took pot shots at NATO, questioning its eastward expansion - and warning against any more of it. Putin wasn't any happier about possible U.S. missile defenses in the former Soviet bloc states of Poland and the Czech Republic, either.

Putin defended the sale of $1 billion in Russian air defense missiles to Iran, saying he didn't want Tehran to "feel cornered." But he was confused about why Iran is ignoring calls to end its nuclear program. (Could it be because Moscow is arming them?)

Leaving earth's confines, Putin complained that the United States was militarizing space, too. In response, Russia is drafting an international ban on space weapons - no doubt in cahoots with the Chinese.

Natch, Putin brushed off any and all criticism of Mother Russia in the Q&A after his half-hour of public spleen-venting. SecDef Gates handled the frontal assault with aplomb. In one of his first news conferences in his new Pentagon gig, he conceded Putin was being quite blunt. But Gates added: "One Cold War was quite enough."

But the SecDef also exposed some glaring Russian hypocrisy: "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."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) - part of the congressional delegation attending the meeting - characterized the speech as "provocative." He said the rhetoric "sounded more like the Cold War."

The White House (lightly) parried Putin: "We are surprised and disappointed with President Putin's comments," a White House spokesman said. "His accusations are wrong."

A Kremlin spokesperson later told reporters that the Russian strongman - er, president - was not trying to provoke the United States. "This is not about confrontation; it's an invitation to think," the Putin flack said.

An "invitation to think"? Think what? That Russia could be turning into a big problem? In that case, Putin succeeded.

Relations with the United States have gotten increasingly thorny over Russia's use of the oil weapon against its neighbors, political and human rights problems and its advanced conventional weapons sales to China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela.

Washington has become wary of Russia's military modernization program, too. The Russian military-industrial complex is on the march again. Awash in oil and gas profits, Putin has been recapitalizing the Russian military ever since he came to power.

So what are we to make of Putin's intimidating broadsides in Munich?

First, the speech was meant as much for domestic consumption as for the Americans/Europeans. Putin has been on a tear to restore Russia's tattered global prestige since becoming president. (Standing up to the West still appeals to some Russians.)

Second, Putin's attack was also meant to signal he wasn't going to brook any nonsense from the United States or his yippy European neighbors on Russia's internal politics or energy dealings. (The good news? Putin's comments may help bridge the Atlantic rift.)

Third, it's evident Russia will pursue an independent foreign policy based on raw national interest. Russia can be helpful, but it can - and will - play the role of spoiler. (This isn't good news on issues like Iran.)

Last, in a way, despite the brushback pitch, we should be grateful Putin clarified Russia's stance. There is no need trying to decipher the often mysterious Russian tea leaves. The message is clear: The Bear is back.

Peter Brookes is a columnist forThe New York Post, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post