Fifteen years ago this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a vitriolic speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he denounced the United States as a hyperbolic superpower, challenged Europe to reexamine security institutions across the continent, and questioned the rationale for expanding NATO. Sound familiar? On the fifteenth anniversary of his manifesto, as the world sits on the precipice of yet another conflict in Ukraine, Putin has dusted off the same talking points and the same demands, announcing last week that once again “fundamental Russian interests were ignored.” And just as the Bush administration did a decade and a half ago, the Biden administration is engaging in a series of talks which, while likely leading nowhere, are validating Putin’s bad behavior and giving him a bigger presence on the world stage than he deserves.
Founded more than fifty years ago, the Munich Security Conference has grown into a major annual event attended by world leaders, American and European defense ministers, parliamentarians from both sides of the Atlantic, journalists, policy experts, and more. The conference was, for decades, the place where U.S. defense secretaries reinforced America’s security commitment to Europe and occasionally chided their counterparts about contributing more to transatlantic security.
But on February 10, 2007, Putin’s litany of grievances disrupted this pattern, transforming the conference into a launch party for a resurgent Russia. The blockbuster tirade led to a series of diplomatic discussions and high-level “strategic framework” meetings that were, while interesting, ultimately fruitless—the same kind of meetings which are being repeated now to address the Ukraine crisis.
U.S. and European policies leading up to the February 2007 conference provided Putin useful material for his rant. In the months preceding the conference, the Bush administration in concert with America’s European allies was pursuing multiple, concurrent policies intended to strengthen transatlantic security. Bulgaria and Romania had agreed to host U.S. forces. NATO was close to extending membership invitations to Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia, having invited seven nations of Central and Eastern Europe to join in 2002. NATO had also made the decision to take over responsibility for the entirety of Afghanistan via the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission. As the Alliance began preparations for its April 2008 summit in Bucharest, its members were discussing whether and how to draw Georgia and Ukraine closer. And, the month before the conference, newly minted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had made the decision to place the “third site” of the nation’s missile defense system on the territory of some of NATO’s newest members in Central and Eastern Europe.
To Putin, these policies provided a way to portray Moscow as the victim of U.S.-led dominion in Europe with scant regard for Russia’s interests. Another Russian leader might have smiled on developments that brought democracy, rule of law, and free markets closer to a Russia struggling with long-term economic stresses, crumbling infrastructure, and declining demographics. Putin saw them are threats to his rule. Instead of seeing NATO’s ISAF mission as an opportunity for cooperation against the common threat of Islamic extremism, Putin portrayed it as NATO destabilizing his “near abroad.”
No one in the U.S. delegation or the international audience was prepared for what Putin would unload over nearly 45 minutes. The strident Russian president spent the majority of his speech and the following Q&A period railing against the Bush administration, staring down Gates and the U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain throughout. He criticized the United States for being arrogant, for its “uncontained hyper use of force,” for having “overstepped its national borders in every way,” and for not adhering to the rule of law. He called America out for its policies on missile defense. He criticized NATO actions in Kosovo.
For the first two-thirds of the speech, which focused on castigating the United States, many of the Europeans in the audience were disturbingly open to Putin’s message. I remember sitting with the rest of the American delegation, seeing agreeable expressions and nods of approval from our European friends and allies.
But the Europeans’ trance broke when Putin redirected his ire toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He claimed the organization was being transformed into a “vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries,” paying insufficient attention to “relations between the spheres,” and making states “dependent and, as a consequence, politically and economically unstable.” This naked paranoia startled the Europeans. It made them concerned that Putin had bigger ambitions about transforming Europe, and that his rant was not only about President Bush and his policies, but about Europe and the institutions that keep it free and peaceful. The unease was palpable—the Europeans were happy to criticize American leadership, but deeply suspicious of any plan to replace the institutions it supported.
Putin’s remarks and Gates’s response—“one Cold War was quite enough”—led to a yearlong effort known as the “2+2 talks,” with Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their Russian counterparts trying to define areas of cooperation, such as counterterrorism and nonproliferation, and trying to soothe areas of contention, such as missile defense and military deployments in Europe. Yet despite honest attempts at good relations, the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia loomed over the discussions as neither side was willing to accept the other’s position.
Putin’s Munich speech was a watershed moment in Russia’s relations with the free world. It made many in Europe aware of the danger Putin represented, but it also created division among them (and among Americans) about how to respond to Moscow. It put the United States in the lead position for engagement with Putin about his concerns and grievances. And it served as the manifesto for the revanchism Putin has pursued ever since. Perhaps the biggest and most lasting effect of Putin’s speech was the reaction it generated from the West, which sought to engage him and reason away his concerns. This helped to legitimate his grievances and his desire to be treated as the leader of a great power.
Since 2007, Putin has remained intent on shaping political and security developments in Russia’s periphery. He wants to be seen as a necessary player on the world stage. He wants Russia to be seen as global power whose approval must be sought. As he said at Munich and many times thereafter, he seeks to reestablish Russian influence in the world.
Successive U.S. administrations and European governments have failed to convince Putin that he could have more influence by playing a constructive, cooperative role than a destructive, antagonistic one. His country’s forces wreaked havoc in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014, splintering the territory of both nations and launching disinformation campaigns which have degraded their democratic processes (and those of other democracies as well). Putin and his cronies have paid relatively little compared to what damage they have been able to inflict militarily, psychologically, and diplomatically on millions of people.
With potential violence and devastation an order of magnitude greater than anything Europe has seen since World War II awaiting only Putin’s order, the Biden administration is again engaging in strategic framework talks with Russia, entertaining Moscow’s grievances and revisionist fantasies. Thankfully, United States and Europe have rejected Putin’s proposals, which essentially amount to a do-over of the Cold War. No doubt, talking is better than fighting, but the cost of talking is legitimizing Putin’s quest for dominion over Russia’s neighbors, as if that were the kind of thing about which the United States could or should negotiate.
For the most part, the collective position the transatlantic community has taken has been the right one: There needs to be an unambiguous message to Putin that any hostile actions by Russia against Ukraine will be met with consequences. For this threat to be seen as real and enforceable, NATO, the European Union, and individual European nations must be unified in their willingness to impose penalties on Russia for yet another attempt at disrupting peace and redrawing borders in Europe.
The United States and Europe have an opportunity to learn from past ineffective engagements with Putin and have this round turn out differently. Ideally, American and Europe’s leaders would adopt a stronger position of deterrence regarding Russia’s new offensive in Ukraine so as to make the penalties so severe that they force those around Putin to calculate the cost and benefits.
Putin told the world at Munich fifteen years ago that he has a narrative of how the West wronged his country, and he has used that story to appeal to the Russian people and to satisfy his need for validation, legitimacy, and special treatment. Taking his insecurities and Cold War nostalgia seriously gives him what he wants. By making clear that the consequences of aggressive action in Ukraine will be severe international political, economic, and military isolation would hit Putin where it matters.