The American delegates to last weekend’s Munich Conference on Security Policy, an annual transatlantic gathering of policymakers and defense experts, were not predisposed to embrace Vladimir Putin after we learned that the Russian president’s entourage had booked more than 100 rooms in the conference hotel, the stately Bayerischer Hof, relegating most of us to a ho-hum Hilton in the hinterlands. (It could have been worse. As one journalist joked, if President Bush had been in attendance, the White House would have taken so many rooms that we would have been commuting from Lichtenstein.)
Putin’s speech did not win over anyone either. Sounding as if he had stepped out of a Cold War time warp, he accused the U.S. and NATO of threatening his country. With its “hyper-use of force…” he thundered, “the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way….No one feels safe anymore, because nobody can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.”
At a superficial level, his remarks might sound like the standard plaints from Western liberals about American “unilateralism,” which is how they were portrayed in some European news accounts. But coming from such an illiberal leader, these comments had a different mien—sinister and absurd at once.
Putin, for instance, complained that a unipolar world order dominated by the U.S. was undemocratic. His concern might be touching if he hadn’t spent the last few years dismantling the vestiges of Russia’s own democracy. He dismissed questions about his increasingly despotic practices with doubletalk, claiming (falsely) that nongovernmental organizations haven’t complained about harassment and (accurately) that more journalists have been killed in Iraq than in Russia. That hardly reassures those who suspect that Putin’s security forces were behind the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and other investigative reporters.
Putin’s condemnation of the U.S.’ “illegitimate” use of force was no more convincing, given the scorched-earth campaign he has carried out in Chechnya. While insisting that the U.S. needs U.N. sanction for its military actions—which, he failed to note, was granted in Afghanistan and Iraq—he argued that Russia needed no such approval in Chechnya because it was acting in “self-defense.” (Try telling that to a Chechen.)
Or consider Putin’s claim that the U.S. was starting a new “arms race” by deploying missile defenses to Eastern Europe. This from the largest exporter of arms to the developing world, with clients that include such charmers as Syria and Venezuela. Putin actually had the nerve to claim that Russia’s sale of $700 million worth of antiaircraft missiles to Iran, which will surely be used to defend Tehran’s nuclear program, was a public service: “We don’t want Iran to feel cornered. We want them to know they’ve got friends.”
Putin did not win many friends in Munich with such remarks. He alienated the audience even more when he turned from criticizing the U.S. to deriding the innocuous Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which seeks to promote human rights and free elections, as a “vulgar instrument.” In fact, Putin did the United States a favor by scaring the Europeans and showing why a transatlantic alliance remains necessary.
So why did Putin choose to bang his shoe, at least figuratively, on the podium? Many analysts hypothesized that his remarks were intended for domestic consumption. Some thought that he might even be signaling that he does not intend to give up power when his term expires next year. There is no doubt that most Russians eat up such nationalist rhetoric, if only because it distracts them from their own decline.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has gone from ruling 293 million people (not counting Eastern Europe) to 143 million, fewer than Bangladesh. Given Russia’s low birth rate and life expectancy (on average, men die at 60), its population is projected to fall to just 109 million by 2050, making it about the same size as Vietnam.
The once-mighty Red Army has been reduced to a shell of its Cold War self, falling from 5.2 million soldiers in 1988 to 1 million, most of whom have terrible morale and worse equipment. Even with oil prices high, Russia’s GDP is just $763 billion, ranking No. 14 in the world, ahead of Australia but behind Mexico, according to the World Bank.
Putin has done little to address his country’s serious woes. Instead, he has used its oil wealth to expand its influence in a pathetic attempt to maintain the illusion that Russia remains a great power. To paraphrase Dean Acheson, Russia has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.
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