Putin Speech Stokes Worry
From the February 13, 2007, Chicago Sun-Times
February 15, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
An old diplomatic joke from the 1930s runs as follows: "It must be true; the Quai d'Orsay denies it." The Quai d'Orsay was -- and is -- the French foreign ministry; so the joke may still be current. It would certainly apply to the diplomatic flap over the weekend speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin blaming the United States for a new arms race, for overstepping its political limits in almost all spheres, and for "an almost unrestrained hyper-use of force" in international relations.
So many diplomats -- in Germany, France and Russia itself -- have been declaring Putin's speech does not mark the beginning of a new Cold War that a neutral observer is tempted to wonder when the shooting starts. Even as each power declares publicly that it accepts no new Cold War is afoot, it privately calculates the significance of Putin's attack. They all recognize that Putin is exploiting two new facts of international life: America's difficulties over Iraq and Iran, and Russia's rising economic power as the second-largest energy producer in a world of high oil prices.
Indeed, Putin went directly from the Munich security conference, where he had leveled his fusillade at Washington, to meet with the First and Third World energy producers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the Gulf. One lesson everyone will draw, therefore, is that Russia intends to use energy as a bargaining chip in relations with former Soviet dependencies in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States. How is each of these likely to react?
Eastern Europe: The former Soviet satellites were already anxious about Russia's energy policies. Last year the Kremlin ordered a temporary cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine. It has unilaterally (and sharply) increased energy prices to the Baltic states. And it negotiated a Russo-German undersea gas pipeline that would enable Moscow to supply the lucrative German market while cutting out Poland and Ukraine. Poland's government has been so anxious about the implications of these policies that it has been seeking partners to build an oil pipeline that would go from Central Asia to Central Europe without passing through Russian territory.
Eastern Europeans have a second reason for anxiety. Putin's list of complaints against the United States had included NATO's discussions with Poland and the Czech Republic over its possible participation in a missile defense system. It wants a defense both against the missiles owned by a newly threatening Russia and against the likelihood of Iran obtaining (courtesy of Putin's assistance) nuclear missiles only minutes away from cities such as Prague and Warsaw.
All these considerations are pushing Eastern Europe in two directions: first, toward a closer relationship with America, and second, toward using its influence in Brussels to prevent the European Union establishing too close a relationship with Russia.
Western Europe: Germany had been slightly worried about these East European trends because close Russo-German economic cooperation is a main foundation of the country's post-Cold War foreign policy. Without Putin's speech, the Germans with Anglo-French help (on this occasion at least) might have gradually pulled Eastern Europe back into going along with a more Russophile approach.
But the Putin speech both offended and frightened the Germans. It offended Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin's hostess, by using Munich to directly contradict her new policy of establishing much warmer Euro-American relations.
Germany is above all a status-quo power that wants to stabilize the post-Cold War settlement of Europe. Putin's attack on NATO expansion, which is the keystone of that stability, suggested that he wanted to reverse some of the West's gains -- and that the Great Russian imperial mind-set is far from dead in Moscow. Add to this German anxiety the suppressed anger in Britain that Russian ty forces were responsible for murdering at least one exiled dissident in London and that the Russian legal authorities refused to help in tracing the murderers.
The United States: All these trends dramatized by the Putin speech remove the mask of "strategic partnership" from a Russo-American relationship that has been unreliable and difficult from Washington's standpoint in recent years. After all, Putin's Russia has not only assisted adversaries of the United States to develop WMDs, it has also protected them at the U.N. Security Council.
The same trends also serve to confirm and strengthen the old Cold War relationships of Atlantic friendship and European-Russia coolness. If Putin had wanted to push the West Europeans into America's embrace, he would have made exactly the same speech. That may explain the relatively low-key responses to Putin from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sen. John McCain and White House spokesman Tony Snow.
All of them seemed quite content to let the Europeans express disquiet and nervousness about the (non-existent) new Cold War. They would simply remind them -- as Gates did a day later at the Seville meeting of NATO -- that if America and NATO were expected to protect Europe against dangers new and old, then help was a two-way trade. In particular, Europe should respond by helping NATO and America in Afghanistan.
As yet the Europeans are slow to respond effectively (European policies are still distorted by a self-destructive anti-Americanism left over from Iraq), but there has been greater realism of late in European governments. They quietly supported the Israeli push against Hezbollah last summer and were quietly disappointed when it failed. They are finally waking up to the fact they have enemies -- the same enemies as America, in fact.
Putin's speech reminded Europeans that his Russia is not an enemy but it is the friend of their enemies.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.