Russian President Vladimir V. Putin berated the United States in a major speech Saturday before senior American and European officials, declaring that Washington’s militarism had fostered global instability and forced vulnerable nations to seek nuclear weapons.
In harsh language sometimes reminiscent of the Cold War and at other times pleading or mocking, Putin accused the United States of attempting to create a world in which it was free to ignore international law and impose its economic, political and military will.
“We are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations,” Putin said. “One country, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”
Putin’s litany of accusations was not unfamiliar. The Russian leader has been able to leverage high demand for Russia’s oil and gas into an increasingly assertive role on the world stage. But the tenor of his remarks sent a quiver through the hall. Participants said that, coming after a conciliatory opening speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin’s comments were widely resented by the hosts. One German questioner jokingly told Putin that he hoped the president had not set off “another world war.”
In Washington, Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “We are surprised and disappointed with President Putin’s comments. His accusations are wrong.”
Johndroe said the Bush administration expected to continue to cooperate with Moscow in areas such as counter-terrorism and reducing the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The speech was a first for a Russian president at the increasingly high-profile Munich Security Conference. It was delivered with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates seated stoically in the front row flanked by a stone-faced congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, considered a leading candidate to be the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.
The symbolism was all the more stark given that it came on the new defense secretary’s first formal trip to Europe and that it occurred at a conference once dominated by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Putin spoke in a prime first-day time slot once used as a platform for Rumsfeld; Gates is to address the gathering today.
U.S. analysts said Putin’s remarks appeared timed to take advantage of the Bush administration’s weakness as it struggled with Iraq policy and dwindling support at home. Putin in the past has lashed out at U.S. criticism of Russia’s human rights record, turning the tables last month to focus on the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Putin did touch on some areas of common interest with the U.S. He criticized Iran for not responding positively to United Nations proposals to suspend its nuclear program. His comments were among Russia’s most pro-Western remarks on the topic in several months.
But he also defended Moscow’s sale of antiaircraft weapons to Tehran, and most of the address focused on perceived American unilateralism and hegemony.
“Unilateral, illegitimate actions have not managed to resolve any problems, but made them worse,” Putin said. “The wars, local and regional conflicts, have only grown in number.”
Arguing that the U.S. was ignoring international law in its use of military power, a clear reference to the invasion of Iraq, Putin said the legal constraints that once protected smaller, weaker nations were no longer viable.
“This is very dangerous,” he said. “Nobody feels secure anymore. No one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them. Of course, such a policy stimulates an arms race. The force’s dominance inevitably encourages a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”
Putin did not make a specific reference to Iran or North Korea as being among those smaller nations that felt threatened, but his reference seemed clear.
The Russian president also said he believed American and other Western economic interests were seeking unfettered access to Russian markets, even as they blocked Russian groups from achieving parity abroad.
Putin was most specific when discussing U.S. moves in Eastern Europe, saying efforts by the Bush administration to set up a missile defense system with radar and interceptor rockets in Poland and the Czech Republic threatened Russia’s ballistic missiles.
The U.S. has repeatedly said the system is not aimed at Russia, but at potential longer-range Iranian missiles.
He questioned why the U.S. believed it was necessary to base troops in two other former Soviet Bloc nations, Bulgaria and Romania. “NATO is bringing its adversarial forces to our state’s borders,” he said. “It is a serious factor provoking reduction of mutual trust.”
Rare show of unity
The attack on NATO appeared to put off European dignitaries as much as U.S. officials, a rare show of unity among the transatlantic partners since the start of the Iraq war nearly four years ago.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told the conference later in the day that he was “disappointed” by Putin’s statements, noting that NATO had for a decade held regular security consultations with Moscow through a formalized, legally binding agreement.
“Who can be worried that democracy and the rule of law are coming closer to somebody’s border?” Scheffer asked.
Stephen Sestanovich, U.S. ambassador-at-large to states of the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration, said Putin most likely spoke out so sharply because he had grown tired of frequent U.S. criticism.
“Most Americans are not aware of how heated and agitated the Russians’ discussions are about their relationship with the West,” he said. “It may come as a surprise to Americans, but for the Russians, the rhetoric on these questions tends to be pretty grim, among the experts and regular folks, about the deterioration of the relationship.
“The theme is, ‘We’re tired of American hegemony, we’re tired of being treated like a former superpower doormat, and we’re back, and we’re mad,’ ” Sestanovich said.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University who is writing a book on transatlantic issues, said Putin had become more bold on the world stage because of Russia’s oil wealth.
“It’s not just about U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “It’s also about growing self-confidence in Russia, and Putin’s determined effort to conduct a more muscular foreign policy, which is at least in part a byproduct of oil revenue.”
During a question period after the address, Putin appeared to try to temper his prepared remarks, which some of those seated near him said included several handwritten inserts.
He said President Bush had told him that the U.S. assumed the two countries would “never be enemies again, and I agree with him.”
“I really consider the president of the United States my friend,” Putin said. “He’s a decent man, and one can do business with him.”
Putin also strode purposefully to Gates immediately after his address, shaking his hand with a smile and exchanging quick pleasantries.
But the remarks clearly perturbed the U.S. delegation. During McCain’s formal remarks to the conference later Saturday, the senator echoed the sentiments of several Americans in attendance, saying Russia appeared to be turning more autocratic and its foreign policy was standing increasingly in opposition to Western democracies.
“Today’s world is not unipolar,” McCain said, disputing Putin’s main theme. “In today’s multipolar world, there is no need for pointless confrontation.”
Germany also targeted
Putin’s criticism was not limited to the U.S. He noted that Germany had shortly after the end of the Cold War sought to reassure its historic rivals in Moscow that it would never send its military forces outside its borders. Berlin now has troops in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
“Where are those guarantees now?” Putin asked, arguing that Europe was attempting to set up new “virtual” barriers to replace the Berlin Wall.
He also dismissed European complaints about Russian threats last year to cut off energy supplies to its neighbors, saying Moscow was only seeking market prices and stable, long-term contracts with countries including Ukraine and Georgia, which in the past had received subsidized supplies.
Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.