The cold shower that Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed on the United States at the international security conference in Munich last weekend should not have come as a surprise. After all, Putin himself and a host of other senior spokesmen, including Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov (one of the "official" heirs-apparent) and military Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluevsky, have said as much in the past.
The list of grievances that Putin lodged against the United States and the West is long. The main complaint is that the American "hyper power" is pursuing its own unilateral foreign, defense, cultural and economic policy, disregarding international law, and ignoring the U.N. (where Russia has a veto). French President Jacques Chirac would be proud. However, Russia takes its opposition much further.
Putin accused the U.S. of expanding NATO to Russia's borders and deploying "five thousand bayonets" each in forward bases in Romania and Bulgaria. He blasted the plans for U.S. missile defense bases in Central Europe, possibly in Poland or the Czech Republic, mocking the stated goal of such installations as defenses against missile launches from Iran or North Korea. Putin clearly stated that the missile defenses are aimed to neutralize Russian retaliatory nuclear strike capability—a destabilizing factor in the Russian nuclear playbook.
He further accused Washington of not meeting its obligations on nuclear disarmament treaties and trying to hide hundreds of nuclear weapons in warehouses, "under the blanket and under the pillow."
Adding to the rhetorical overkill, Putin blamed U.S. policies for the failure of nuclear non-proliferation, implying justification for North Korean and Iranian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Putin lambasted NATO members that refuse to ratify the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty; criticized the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for democracy promotion; warned against Kosovo's independence; and rejected Western criticisms of Russia's track record in human rights.
Putin waxed nostalgic about the bi-polar world in which the U.S. and the USSR checked each other's ambition through a balance of nuclear terror known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Many Russian and Western experts perceive Putin's speech as a declaration of a new Cold War.
Back to the Future?
Putin's speech has a number of domestic and international "drivers," which add up to a picture of Russia craving strategic parity with the United States and defining its national identity in opposition to the West.
While Russians enthusiastically embraced private business, designer brands, and Costa-del-Sol Spanish vacations, they were slow to internalize pluralistic values, support freedom of speech and press, and defend human rights. The rule of law in Russia is a far cry from Western standards.
Several years of increasingly loud anti-American and anti-Western propaganda in pro-government and nationalist media have nurtured a generation of Russians who are ethno-centric, and reject liberal values. Some 60 percent in a recent poll supported the slogan "Russia for Russians."
Sustained nationalist and anti-American brainwashing bridged the gap between the Soviet superpower chauvinism and the new Russian assertiveness, fueled by massive oil revenues and nationalism.
The "America-as-the-enemy" construct bolsters the legitimacy of the current regime, headed largely by former KGB officers, as the defender of Mother Russia. It rejects fully integrating Russia into the global economic and political community, as the other official "heir-apparent," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, suggested in his January 2007 speech at the Davos World Economic Forum.