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'Epoch-Making' Munich Speeches Signify Nothing

  • Aleksandr Golts

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov

For the last week or so, all my friends in the foreign-policy community have been trying very hard to create the impression that they are leaking information. They would lower their voices and warn me not to miss Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's speech at the Munich security conference. After all, it was at this same event two years ago that then-President Vladimir Putin accused the West of trying to gain military supremacy over Russia and threatened to respond with military means.

Thank goodness, no such reaction to Western measures perceived as threatening materialized, but there has been plenty of militarized rhetoric and supporting incomprehensible actions. Putin loudly announced the beginning of regular strategic-aviation patrols, although what really happened was the resumption of training flights. A mission by the four Russian naval vessels capable of reaching the Mediterranean was declared "epoch-making" and "the end of the U.S. 6th Fleet's monopoly." And how can we forget the visits and flights to Venezuela, the soft underbelly of the United States?

But then the crisis came and it turned out that if Russia couldn't make peace with the accursed West, then at least we had to take the confrontation down a notch. Putin got himself under control, overcame his loathing of the West, and made a profoundly liberal speech last month at the global economic forum in Davos.

Apparently it would have been too much for him to show up at Munich -- the same spot where he confidently lambasted one and all two years ago -- with a conciliatory speech. So he sent Ivanov to wave the olive branch.

But apparently something happened while he was on the plane. Moscow's dove of peace landed in the Bavarian capital and straight away began making noises that sounded like anything but cooing. The deputy premier's "initiatives" all seemed like pages taken straight from the latest edition of the old Soviet Peace Program. That is, under the guise of compromises or concessions to the West, Moscow introduces completely unacceptable demands.

Avoiding The 'Reset' Button

For the past seven years, Moscow was trying to get the administration of George W. Bush to begin offensive strategic-weapons talks. But the White House was not looking to restrict itself with extra obligations. But now that a new administration has declared a readiness to begin talks immediately, since the current strategic-weapons framework expires in December, Moscow has announced a willingness "to go further."

This "further" means, first, forbidding the placement of offensive strategic weapons outside the territories of the two countries. If we are talking about the traditional strategic triad of ground-based missiles, nuclear-armed submarines, and strategic bombers, then Moscow is proposing that Washington unilaterally (since Russia does not have this opportunity) give up the option of resupplying strategic submarines at foreign ports or temporarily basing nuclear-armed aircraft abroad. If Moscow interprets "strategic forces" more broadly to include anti-missile systems, then the Kremlin is proposing that the United States renounce the option of deploying elements of missile-defense systems in other countries.

In addition, Ivanov proposed formalizing the commitment to refrain from the militarization of outer space. It must be recalled that even during the best years of Russian-American relations, the two sides never managed to define precisely what is meant by the "militarization" of outer space. By introducing this demand, Moscow is clearly aiming at stretching out the strategic-weapons talks for years into the future.

And these demands come at the very moment when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the same Munich conference this weekend, declared that it is time to "push the reset button" on bilateral relations. But it would appear that Russia's commander in chief has no need for resetting. After all, if you think about it, he has achieved all of his goals in relations with the West. As long as Washington and Moscow are focused on mutual deterrence, they will be counting warheads and rocket launchers and talking about missile throw-weights. No one will have any time to spend looking at the particularities of the domestic policies of the Putin regime.

So Much Noise

It was no coincidence that our national leader lashed out when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso at a press conference last week dared to express "concerns about the recent events affecting the rule of law in Russia." It wasn't just that Barosso raised a subject that foreigners are not allowed to mention, but he discussed it with the wrong person (i.e., President Dmitry Medvedev).

And so Putin blasted him with both barrels: "We are still not satisfied with the resolution of the problems of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states. We know about the rights of migrant workers in European countries and how they are being violated. We know about this situation in the prison systems of some European states. And we also have such problems. We think that it is necessary to discuss the entire spectrum of problems both in Russia and in European countries in order to find means of solving them using combined resources. So, while I cannot speak for the president of the Russian Federations, I would ask Mr. Barosso: please, accept this return shot from the government of the Russian Federation."

When Barosso tried to object and return the shot, the prime minister, clearly not used to such interlocutors, dismissively said: "Are we going to belabor this discussion or shall we wrap up?"

Under these circumstances, all of Russia's foreign policy is reduced to just an exchange of shots. So the exchange of positive signals in Munich over the weekend really means absolutely nothing. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the Sunday "analytical" shows on Russian television didn't have a single word to say about Ivanov's "epoch-making" speech.

Aleksandr Golts is deputy editor of the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," where this comment first appeared. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL