The first was that it came as any kind of surprise; Russia's top generals, commentators and the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox church all said much the same last week. Indeed, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian military's General Staff, said "the U.S. military leadership's course aimed at maintaining its global leadership and expanding its economic, political and military presence in Russia's traditional zones of influence" was the main threat for Russia's national security.
The second was that a very large number of Democrats in the United States and traditional U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere would agree with much of Putin's critique of the Bush administration, delivered to an audience of European security chiefs that included the new U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the annual Wehrkunde conference in Munich.
The third was that most of these non-Russian critics would have added that the only problem with Putin's attack was the source from which it came. After his crushing of Chechnya, his use of the energy weapon to bully Ukraine and Georgia and his relentless squeeze on Russia's fledgling democracy, Putin's speech looked like a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. But few could deny that the pot has a point.
"One single center of power. One single center of force. One single center of decision-making. This is the world of one master, one sovereign," was how Putin characterized the foreign policies of the Bush administration. And it sounded very much like the concept of "the unipolar world" that is touted by Bush's aides and supporters.
"It has nothing in common with democracy, of course," Putin went on. "Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained use of hyper-force in international affairs. The U.S. has overstepped its national borders and in almost every area. They bring us to the abyss of one conflict after another. Political solutions are becoming impossible."
Ironically, Putin was saying this just as U.S negotiators, working closely with their Chinese counterparts, were coming close to a settlement of the nuclear dispute with North Korea. Equally ironically, the vehemence of his attack on the U.S. served to confirm the nervous Eastern Europeans and the Baltic states that they were right to join NATO and to install U.S. bases and forces on their territories, close to the Russian frontier.
Putin cited that NATO enlargement as one of his prime concerns, along with U.S. plans to deploy missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. But his own policies and his latest speech have been the clearest evidence for the Poles, Latvians and Romanians that they may have come inside the NATO security system just in time, before a new Cold War gets under way.
And Putin made his speech to a largely European audience, of security experts who have become more than alarmed at the prospect of dependence on Russian energy supplies and the Kremlin's latest floating of the idea of a new OPEC cartel that could drive up the price and control the market for natural gas.
As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina commented, Putin "has done more to bring Europe and the U.S. together than any single event in the last several years."
The trigger for Putin's attack seems to have been the statement to Congress last week of U.S. Defense Secretary Gates. He named Russia as a potential threat, saying "We don't know what's going to develop in places like Russia and China, in North Korea, in Iran and elsewhere" and referring to "the uncertain paths of China and Russia, which are both pursuing sophisticated military modernization programs."
Russia's daily Gazeta said Friday said that Gates' statement could "go down to history books as a starting point for a new twist of the Cold War." And Viktor Ozerov, chair of defense committee in Russia's Duma, said Gates' comments were part of "U.S. attempts to draw our nation into a new arms race."
One leading Russian military analyst, retired Gen. Eduard Vorobiov, commented: "In listing America's potential adversaries, Gates openly calls for a confrontation. What worries me is that the statement the U.S. defense secretary made must have been pre-approved by the White House. That makes it the official position of the U.S. administration."
According to Maj.-Gen. Alexander Vladimirov, vice president of Russia's Board of Military Experts, Gates' remarks, the deployment of anti-missile radars and defense systems in Alaska and the deployment of bases all around Russia's perimeter "seem like preparations for a war ... Tension is mounting because of the U.S. Army's problems in Iraq and shaky positions of the Republican administration in general."
"Gates's statement has only one meaning -- that the new U.S. defense secretary has forgotten nothing and has learned nothing. To say that Russia may be a threat to the United States is an extreme manifestation of remaining Cold War syndromes," Maj.-Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, a senior research fellow at the Russian Institute of the World Economy and International Relations, told Russian journalists Friday.
"Some are building a global America, and others are building a global Caliphate," commented Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin last week. "Both trends claim the universal nature of their values. If these or those and all the others fail to learn how to live in peace, a global conflict is inevitable."
With comments such as these, Putin's attack was clearly aimed at his own domestic audience, reminding them ahead of next year's elections that Putin and his team (and thus his likely successors) are tough enough to stand up to the U.S. superpower. So for an international audience his speech might best be considered as a warning, rather than as the declaration of a new Cold War. After all, he also told the Wehrkunde conference that President Bush "is a decent man, and one can do business with him." Putin added that Bush had told him "I assume that Russia and the U.S. would never be enemies again, and I agree."
Putin's warning covers several distinct issues. One was the prospect of military action against Iran, and recall that Russia (much to Bush's satisfaction) voted for sanctions against Iran at the United Nations. Another was the U.S. strategic missile defense system, which the Russians believe they can overcome with the new Topol-M missile. The third was NATO enlargement, which Russia can no longer do much about.
The fourth, however, was probably the real concern: the use of Western NGOs and diplomatic support for pro-democracy movements in Russia's ex-Soviet neighbor states. The "Rose revolution" in Georgia, the "Orange revolution" in Ukraine and the "Tulip revolution" in Kyrgyzstan deeply worried the Kremlin, for domestic reasons as well as for the fear of losing influence in the era it calls "the near abroad."
But there was one final message in Putin's ominous remarks that will linger, a reminder that the United States and Russia remain the only two nuclear superpowers, armed with vast nuclear arsenals that could destroy all civilized life on earth. Once again, as so often before, the real meaning of Putin's attack was yet another cry for that lost international respect that the Kremlin craves.
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