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February 10 marks 17 years since Russian President Putin delivered his infamous speech at the Munich Security Policy Conference. The deceitful accusations against the West voiced in Munich alarmed many at that time because such rhetoric had not been heard from the Kremlin since the time of Nikita Khrushchev. Today, it is obvious how insufficient the response of the international community was, and what disastrous consequences this led to. Has the world really drawn conclusions?
Munich 2007: declaration of intent
The content of Putin’s “Munich speech” is well-known. It was an invective against the West, which, under the leadership of the United States, was allegedly trying to build a “unipolar world”:
“What is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. (…) I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. (…) And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.
Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. (…) We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.
(…) And of course, this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasise this – no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.”
Putin stated that the “unipolar world” posed a direct threat to Russia, primarily due to the expansion of NATO, as well as attempts by the West to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries:
“(…) Simultaneously the so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each in Bulgaria and Romania. It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders (…). I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?
(…) People are trying to transform the OSCE into a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries. And this task is also being accomplished by the OSCE’s bureaucratic apparatus which is absolutely not connected with the state founders in any way. Decision-making procedures and the involvement of so-called non-governmental organisations are tailored for this task. These organisations are formally independent, but they are purposefully financed and therefore under control.
(…) According to the founding documents, in the humanitarian sphere the OSCE is designed to assist country members in observing international human rights norms at their request. This is an important task. We support this. But this does not mean interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, and especially not imposing a regime that determines how these states should live and develop.”
Putin’s message was simple: the existing world order does not suit Russia in any wat, and therefore Russia reserves the right to neglect its principles. In fact, it was a declaration of intent, which, unfortunately, was not taken seriously. Putin’s determination to implement these intentions was also underestimated. In addition, in 2008, Medvedev’s nominal presidency began, which gave rise to the illusion that Russia was still able to change the authoritarian and anti-Western vector of development.
However, in 2008, Russia attacked Georgia, which fully corresponded to the spirit and literal content of Putin’s “Munich speech.” The timing was not by chance: in April, the Bucharest NATO Summit was held, following which Georgia (and, by the way, Ukraine) was assured that it would become a member of the Alliance. However, in August, Moscow gave a clear signal of its readiness to fight the pro-Western choice of neighbouring nations not only through economic and political pressure, but also with the use of military force.
However, the West decided not to attach great importance to this precedent, which was perceived in Moscow as an invitation to escalation.
Revolt against the international order
The next stage of the “fight against unipolarity” was the seizure of the Ukrainian Crimea in March 2014. This came as a shock to many around the world. According to The New York Times, in a conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed doubt that Putin remained in contact with reality. “[Putin] lives in another world,” Merkel allegedly said. However, the attack on Ukraine was not a spontaneous act of madness. It was part of a comprehensive effort by Moscow to break the “hegemony of the West.”
The latter was confirmed by Putin himself, speaking on March 18, 2014, to the members of the State Duma, members of the Federation Council, and heads of regions of Russia. The Russian dictator did not say anything fundamentally new back then, only developed the main statements of his “Munich speech”:
“After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability. Key international institutions are not getting any stronger; on the contrary, in many cases, they are sadly degrading. Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
(…) There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. (…) A similar situation unfolded in Ukraine. In 2004, to push the necessary candidate through at the presidential elections, they thought up some sort of third round that was not stipulated by the law. It was absurd and a mockery of the constitution. And now, they have thrown in an organised and well-equipped army of militants.
We understand what is happening; we understand that these actions were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration. (…) On the contrary, they have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. (…) In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today.”
Over the next decade, the West was able to realize how deeply Moscow and Putin personally were obsessed with controlling Ukraine, and how far Russia was willing to go in trying to implement these plans. However, it is clear that Putin’s intentions extend much farther. Here is what Putin said in his address on February 24, 2022, announcing the beginning of the “military operation in the Donbas,” which, according to Moscow’s plans, was to end with a lightning-fast occupation of the whole of Ukraine:
“In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union grew weaker and subsequently broke apart. That experience should serve as a good lesson for us. (…) As a result, the old treaties and agreements are no longer effective. Entreaties and requests do not help. Anything that does not suit the dominant state, the powers that be, is denounced as archaic, obsolete and useless. At the same time, everything it regards as useful is presented as the ultimate truth. Those who refuse to comply are subjected to strong-arm tactics. What I am saying now does not concerns only Russia, this has to do with the entire system of international relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a redivision of the world. The norms of international law that developed by that time came in the way of those who declared themselves the winners of the Cold War. (…)
US politicians, political scientists and journalists write and say that a veritable “empire of lies” has been created inside the United States in recent years. It is hard to disagree with this. The United States is a system-forming power. All its satellites not only humbly and obediently say yes to and parrot it at the slightest pretext but also imitate its behaviour and enthusiastically accept the rules it is offering them. Therefore, one can say that the whole so-called Western bloc is the very same ‘empire of lies.’
They tried to put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us in the 1990s and the early 2000s. The so-called collective West was actively supporting separatism and gangs of mercenaries in southern Russia. What victims, what losses we had to sustain! We remember this and will never forget.
The attempts to use us in their own interests, to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, never ceased. The attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen.
(…) The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape. Fully controlled from the outside, it is doing everything to attract NATO armed forces and obtain cutting-edge weapons. For the United States and its allies, it is a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends. For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation.”
Again, the “Munich speech” rehash. The events of the following days showed that the fears about Putin that had been heard since 2007 were not paranoia. However, the painful path of liberation from illusions and naivety must be completed. The claim that Putin seeks to build an empire and will not reckon with losses on the way to his goal no longer raises objections. However, the ultimate goal of the dictator is more global. The Russian tricolour over Kyiv was supposed to be a signal that the existing system of international relations finally collapsed—a single system in which the concepts of sovereignty, law and democracy were filled with real meaning. This would signal that the West lost global leadership and was a potential prey for predator states.
Imperial ambitions, global plans
Western politicians, who had to listen to Putin’s Munich demagogy in 2007, could hardly imagine that in seven years Crimea would be annexed, and in fifteen years, Russia would unleash a full-scale war—the largest one in Europe since 1945. Similarly, today, a significant part of Western political establishment avoids really considering the possibility of armed aggression of Russia against NATO member states. But the worst thing they can do now is to sway themselves and their citizens with the idea that Putin’s ambitions do not extend beyond Ukraine. The Russian dictator openly voiced his intentions 17 years ago and since then, he has not given any reason for doubt. On the contrary, the intervention in Syria, interference in the elections in the United States, support for Eurosceptic movements in the EU, and many other facts show that for the sake of weakening the West, Putin will not limit himself either in the means or in the geography.
Attempts to co-opt Russia into the international security system have failed. Instead of becoming a contributor, Russia deliberately and purposefully became its destroyer. Today, Moscow is working hard to create an anti-Western alliance of destroyers around itself, building cooperation with Iran and North Korea, increasing its influence in Africa, and also trying to win over the states of the Global South, India, and China. All this is accompanied by the slogans of the struggle against the “colonialism of the West.”
The transition of Russia to military rails is also a fait accompli, as is the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. It is naive to think that all these efforts are aimed exclusively at seizing the territories of Ukraine and will be curtailed as soon as the Kremlin achieves the results it finds acceptable. Even in his speech on the annexation of the occupied regions of Ukraine on September 30, 2022, Putin spoke much more about the “criminal West” and the overthrow of its “unipolar hegemony” than about the so-called “Kyiv regime.”
Everyone knows the story of the Shepherd Boy. This is an awful example. But it is absolutely absurd to assure that there is no wolf when it has been here for a long time. However, today words are no longer enough. The best way to avoid Russia’s armed aggression against NATO countries is to provide timely and sufficient assistance to Ukraine, which has taken the first blow and can play a key role in restoring international order.