Fifteen years after Munich, Putin is driven by the same fears

While the world has changed significantly in the last 15 years, Russia’s fears and goals have remained largely the same.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference, which was delivered 15 years ago on Thursday, was the first moment when Western leaders were forced to reckon with Russian anxieties head-on. These same anxieties have motivated Russian violation of Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty in 2008 and 2014 and continue to drive Russia’s buildup and pressure on its border with Ukraine today.   

One of the most remembered elements of Putin’s 2007 speech is his condemnation of the policy of NATO’s eastward expansion, toward which he and his government had previously oscillated between hostility and tolerance. Putin questioned whether NATO’s expansion was targeted at Russia and if the West sought to box in the nation.  

In the period between the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin’s Munich speech, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and even the three former Soviet Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) joined the alliance. These countries sought to join NATO for a variety of reasons — but all had an interest in insulating themselves from a recent history of Russian or Soviet domination. Moscow’s perception of the alliance was disconnected from the George W. Bush administration’s policy surrounding NATO expansion, which held that NATO could serve as a catalyst for European unity and the integration of former Warsaw Pact countries into the fabric of the European political system. Obama administration policy also emphasized the value of NATO as a stabilizing force in Europe and maintained that European countries should independently seek membership in their alliance of choice. 

Despite American insistence that the value of NATO expansion was found in payouts not related to the alliance’s relationship with Russia, Moscow would only become more convinced of a NATO threat as time went on. Roughly a year after Putin’s speech, NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the alliance. Putin and other Russian officials sharply condemned the decision, which they saw as validation of their fears. Russia subsequently invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 at moments when Russia’s leadership felt confident enough to act on what Putin had described in Munich, thereby reducing the chances of joining NATO.  

Russia’s “security proposals,” which were presented to the United States in December 2021, demand the unambiguous rejection of any future eastward NATO expansion as well as the rollback of NATO deployments in Eastern Europe. Putin’s continued accusations that Ukraine is merely NATO’s “instrument” to contain Russia, even as Ukraine remains far from membership in NATO, shows how the fears Putin articulated in Munich continue to guide Moscow’s foreign policy.    

While today’s world can be defined less and less as a unipolar system, the world of 2007 was very much still the unipolar world of the post-Cold War era. In Munich, Putin called a unipolar arrangement of world affairs “unacceptable,” condemned American democracy promotion abroad and the “uncontained” American use of force. He also used the speech to condemn America’s deployment of anti-missile defense systems in Europe, which has been a consistent irritant in Moscow’s relationship with Washington, along with the 2002 withdrawal by the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  

Events in the following years appeared to confirm Putin’s fears. He reacted particularly strongly to events such as the killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi by Western-supported rebels and questioned the United States and NATO’s right to intervene so directly. Russian support for embattled autocrats such as Syria’s Bashar Assad and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko has shown how uneasy the Kremlin is with real and imagined U.S. pressure on autocratic regimes.  

The Russian government continues to fear a so-called color revolution taking place in its own country along the lines of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, which Kremlin officials such as presidential adviser Sergei Glazyev claimed without proof received American financial support and arms. Pronouncements by Putin that such color revolutions would not be permitted in member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — a Russian-led alliance that was used to put down unrest in Kazakhstan in January — show that Moscow holds the same fears that it did 15 years ago and is willing to use force to subdue them.  

With this knowledge, American policymakers must act to future-proof European stability from future Russian challenges. Policymakers should operate under the assumption that Putin’s views from Munich are deeply ingrained in Russia’s foreign outlook but that the sharp edge of Russian foreign policy can be dulled through deterrence and negotiation where appropriate. Excellent proposals already exist to adopt a realistic approach to Russia or to identify useful new tools to push back against Russian aggression.  

In the short term, Western policymakers should be prepared to work with Russia to develop guarantees of what NATO will and will not do in Western-oriented Ukraine and Georgia while also demonstrating readiness to impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia if it further disrupts European stability with offensive action against Ukraine. This must be followed in the medium and longer term with serious dialogue in areas where we have mutual interests, such as developing a new strategic arms control architecture built with novel delivery systems and missile defense questions in mind. 

American policy that is perpetually reactive to long-standing trends in Russian foreign policy will struggle to hold the initiative in preventing future challenges to European stability. 

Wesley Culp is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Tags . Russia-Ukraine conflict Foreign relations of Russia NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian irredentism Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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