Putin Gives Priority to Security Issues in Berlin Speech
Facing censure in the West over the arrest of an outspoken media mogul, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday set aside his search for debt relief from Germany, Russia’s biggest creditor, and turned instead to saber-rattling against the United States and NATO.
In an address to leading German businesspeople that was expected to focus on jump-starting economic ties between Moscow and Berlin, Putin instead warned the Western military alliance against extending membership to Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. The three Baltic states are former Soviet republics.
“We have to ask ourselves why NATO is moving toward our borders,” Putin, with a visage exuding suspicion, told the business leaders. “Do we not have the right to think of our own security? We not only have the right but the duty for everyone’s sake, because if a country like Russia feels threatened, this would destabilize the situation in Europe and the entire world.”
Putin, who spent five years in East Germany as a KGB spy in the Cold War climax of the 1980s, is visiting this recently restored German capital for the first time as a statesman. His emphasis on security issues harked back to the era of superpower tensions, as he also used his meetings here to reiterate opposition to Washington’s proposal to build a national missile defense system.
“This could set in motion a very dangerous spiral of the arms race,” Putin said of the U.S. project, which would require changes to the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
Europe faces little risk of all-out war at the moment, Putin said. But he warned against complacency amid what he sees as a threat to European security from the U.S. antimissile project. Germany and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies on the continent also have expressed reservations about the proposed shield against missiles and the wisdom of weakening the arms control treaty.
The new Kremlin leader, elected in March, had been expected to push for more German investment in Russia and forgiveness of a portion of Moscow’s $19-billion debt to this nation that is now in default. Germany holds nearly half of Russia’s $43-billion foreign debt, and officials here said earlier this week that they had been informed Putin would seek a postponement, if not a full write-off, of more than $8 billion in payments.
Germany is also Russia’s most important European trading partner, having made $224 million in direct investment in the former superpower last year. But German officials made clear on the eve of Putin’s visit that debt forgiveness was not in the picture.
Putin’s two-day visit here has been overshadowed by accusations both in Europe and in Moscow that the arrest Tuesday of billionaire media entrepreneur Vladimir A. Gusinsky shows that the Kremlin is resorting to repressive tactics to stifle dissent. Gusinsky’s media empire, which includes the independent NTV network, has been highly critical of Putin’s war against the separatist republic of Chechnya.
At a Council of Europe conference on mass communications held in Krakow, Poland, on Thursday, the group’s secretary-general criticized the arrest of Gusinsky “without concrete charges” and said it would be intolerable if the move is related to his media enterprises.
“The arrest of the owner of the only private television in Russia is a matter of concern,” said the official, Walter Schwimmer.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his Russian counterpart, Igor S. Ivanov, had an “exhaustive face-to-face talk” during which Gusinsky’s arrest and concerns about media freedom were addressed, a German government spokesman said. No details were given.
From his jail cell in Moscow, Gusinsky issued a handwritten statement accusing the Kremlin of “political intrigue organized by senior representatives of the state for whom the freedom of speech is a danger.”
Putin, who earlier had expressed surprise over the arrest, said Thursday that he considered the detention “excessive.” Like his predecessor in the Kremlin, Boris N. Yeltsin, Putin has often sought to distance himself from repressive behavior by police or judicial forces by denying that they acted on orders.
Although the Russian president’s agenda seemed to lose its business focus on the first day of meetings here, he and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pronounced a new dawn in their relations after a time of tension stemming from the August 1998 collapse of the ruble, Russia’s currency, and disputes over conflicts in the Balkans and Chechnya.
“We agree that we want a really substantive new start in our relations,” Schroeder said after their first, hourlong meeting.
Putin was set to meet for several hours today with the chancellor, as well as with another group of economic leaders, before returning to Moscow.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.