Munich Revisited

Russia is back as a major player in the international arena, and President Putin’s speech in Germany served notice to the United States and Europe that it is not going anywhere.

Beyond all the talk that Vladimir Putin's remarks at the Munich Security Conference marks the beginning of a "new Cold War" between the West and Russia, there are several reasons why his speech is quite significant.

The first is that it marks the opening of the 2008 presidential campaign in Russia. Putin laid down the grounds for his successor that must be followed in terms of foreign policy. This means those in the West who still hope for major changes to occur in Russian policy "once Putin is gone" are likely to be sorely disappointed. What we heard in Munich is the emergence of a foreign policy consensus among the Russian elite that will be shared in large degree among all of Putin's potential successors-whether deputy prime minister Dimitri Medvedev, who wowed audiences in Davos, or defense minister Sergei Ivanov, who accompanied Putin to Munich.

And one point which sounded loud and clear is Putin's declaration that, after fifteen years of shuffling along as the remnants of the collapsed Soviet superpower, Russia has returned-in her own right-claiming a seat as a major international power in pursuit of her own interests, no longer interested in seeking admission as a "country cousin" to the club of the Euro-Atlantic democracies or willing to defer to U.S. guidance or interests. In the wake of a successful trip to India (and now on an historic visit to Riyadh-and accorded the red carpet treatment by the Saudis who two decades ago saw Moscow as a mortal enemy), Putin is gaining points among governments who are a bit weary with perceived American dominance of the international agenda.

Second, Putin struck back very hard at Russia's critics in the West, and sent a signal-in advance of likely new hearings to be held in the U.S. Congress about Russia's "wrong direction"-by highlighting what he sees as the problems existing right now in the relationship between Russia and Western countries and the United States in particular.  He made it clear that Moscow no less than Washington is quite disappointed in the way relations have evolved. And it is always easier to have your ball on the 50 yard-line of your opponent then have to play defense in your own end zone.

Take missile defense. Putin called Washington's bluff. It is becoming very difficult to explain why an anti-missile system that is supposed to defend against the possibility of a launch from a rogue state like Iran or North Korea needs be based in Poland or the Czech Republic instead of, let's say, Turkey (to defend against the Iranian contingency) or Japan (vis-à-vis North Korea).

Finally, there is an unusual but nonetheless interesting tidbit.  Putin tried to play "divide and rule" in terms of its relationship with the United States. Quite aware that President George W. Bush is under attack, not only from a Democratic Congress but increasingly by members of his own party as well, the Russian leader, while quite critical of the United States, continue to declare not only his admiration for the U.S. president but identified him as a man he could continue to "do business with." In the Russian version of the speech, Putin gave pretty clear indications that despite everything W. has done and is still doing, he is still Putin's friend and that, if the U.S. president is still interested, he could be in a position to reach important agreements with Russia on areas important to U.S. policy but that, because of the near total focus on Iraq, have been neglected. In other words, after the harsh words, Putin offered a life preserver for the embattled president. The question now: will Bush take it?

James Davis is president of South Shore Consulting.