LAST WEEKEND’S Cold War revival at a security conference in Munich, Germany, featured a cynical Vladimir V. Putin against a reasonable Robert M. Gates, but the Russian president still scored points with his pointed anti-American speech. Putin complained that U.S. unilateralism and disregard for international law were making the world a more dangerous place, fueling insecure nations’ appetite for sophisticated weaponry, especially nukes. What made the speech so cynical was Putin’s built-in rationale for Russian arms sales to unsavory clients, including Iran, because he doesn’t want that nation to “feel cornered.”
Gates replied to Putin’s confrontational address a day later with disarming remarks about the bluntness of former spies, nostalgia for the simplicity of the Cold War and even acknowledgment that some of Washington’s recent missteps (mainly in the treatment of detainees) have eroded our credibility abroad. He also raised legitimate concerns, ever so tactfully, about the Kremlin’s increasingly autocratic drift.
Yet Putin’s tough talk undoubtedly played well, not only among those in the West and elsewhere who oppose the Iraq war, but among his domestic constituents who have deep-seated reasons for rejecting Gates’ assertion that the U.S. is a “force of good around the world.” These reasons have less to do with Iraq than with U.S. moves in the last decade to expand NATO to the east, in violation of what Russians felt was an implicit, if not explicit, deal: That in the twilight of the Soviet era, Moscow would allow for German reunification and pull its forces out of Eastern Europe as long as Washington didn’t stab the Kremlin in the back by enlarging NATO to Russia’s borders.
That is precisely what followed. A typical NATO communique in the aftermath of the unexpectedly peaceful conclusion of the Cold War stated: “Consistent with the purely defensive nature of our alliance, we will neither seek unilateral advantage from the changed situation in Europe nor threaten the legitimate interests of any state.” But within a few years, the U.S. turned vindictive victor in the eyes of Russia, allowing former Warsaw Pact members into NATO, including the formerly Soviet Baltic republics. The humiliation, and seeming encirclement, of Russia continues relentlessly to this day, with talk of someday bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the club.
NATO enlargement a decade ago was largely shrugged off in this country (though it was rightly opposed by this page), but Americans need to start realizing the extent to which this historical blunder drives how Russians interpret U.S. actions around the world. It helps explain why a hard-line nationalist such as Putin, despite his anti-democratic tendencies, remains hugely popular at home. The only surprise about his angry speech is that it took him this long to deliver it.