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Analysis: Putin reclaims Russian clout

BERLIN, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The anti-U.S., anti-NATO speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin has unsettled European officials. But observers should not be surprised; his words come as part of a deliberate effort to reclaim lost Russian clout, in light of the country's recent rise as an energy superpower and the West's failure to resolve crises in the Middle East.

It was 10:37 a.m., Saturday morning in Bavaria. The who's who of the global security scene, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had gathered to listen to the first-ever speech of a Russian president at the Munich Conference on Security.

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Pleased to be able to "avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms," Putin attacked the United States (a "unipolar" power) and NATO on most of its fronts, namely NATO's eastward expansion, U.S. unilateralism, failure in the Middle East and Washington's plan to place anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe.

Placing those systems in Poland and the Czech Republic would trigger "an inevitable arms race," Putin said. "I don't want to accuse anyone of being aggressive," Putin said, but threatened he is considering an unspecified "asymmetric" response, evoking memories of distant Cold War days.

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NATO's eastward expansion, he said, "represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust." Putin quoted former NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner, who promised in 1990 that NATO wouldn't station its troops eastward of Germany to give Russia a security guarantee.

"Where are these guarantees?" Putin asked, adding that Russia's troops were leaving Georgia, while at the same time NATO was stationing 5,000 soldiers in Bulgaria and Romania. In a comparison that may have reminded Merkel of the Berlin Wall, Putin said the West was trying to impose "new boundaries and walls."

While Gates followed with a somber and ironic rebuttal ("As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time," Gates joked. "Almost."), the White House said it was "surprised and disappointed" by Putin's speech, but added it will continue to work with Moscow in key security areas. "We certainly disagree with the characterization of the United States acting unilaterally," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. "The United States does in fact regard Russia as an important ally."

Markus Kaim, security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that Putin's speech reiterated the claim for Russia to be recognized as a global power.

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"This is a loud beat of the drum, with which Russia says: You can't pass us by anymore," Kaim told United Press International in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Putin's advances come at a well-timed moment: In Iraq, the West's democracy campaign and mainly the United States has taken heavy damage; Iran still refuses to stop uranium enrichment; and in Eastern Europe, conflicts are destabilizing the region. Add to that Russia's role as an energy superpower, and Putin's move (which has been heralded by several statements from Russian in the days before the conference) makes sense. U.S. unilateralism, as of now, is a thing of the past, and Putin's attack puts Washington, at least a bit, in the defensive position.

Kaim said much of Putin's speech for a greater Russian role in world politics was because the topic usually rakes in votes for the upcoming 2008 elections. Yet Kaim called many of Putin's critical points "invalid," namely the tirade against NATO's eastward expansion. The NATO-Russia Council, for example, has intensified Moscow's cooperation with the body on security matters.

Kaim warned that Russia in several key areas (Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Eastern Europe) was "diametrically opposed" to the Europeans in their security approach, and key governments, such as the German one in Berlin, should mull rethinking their approach to Moscow.

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"We have different perceptions of internal and external order, and therefore, Russia isn't really a strategic partner anymore," he said.

Another ambition Putin had was "driving a wedge in the trans-Atlantic partnership," which may have succeeded, he added.

While Putin's hard talk is not the first step toward another Cold War, several European politicians in the Munich audience appeared amused that someone finally gave Washington a talking-to. Such a view of things will not please supporters of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

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