Reading Putin: Another Perspective

Former Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, in a Wednesday interview, shed a different light on Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin’s February 10 speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, was the kind of harsh words rarely heard from Russians since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  In the key part of his speech, Putin said:

Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished…And no less people perish in these conflicts — even more are dying than before. Significantly more, significantly more!

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. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. 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. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded, saying one Cold War was enough.  But was Putin speaking more to his own countrymen than to us?  That possibility is one Nastase thinks we should consider.

Adrian Nastase is, at his core, a diplomat.  During his tenure as Romania’s foreign minister, he served — briefly –as president of the U.N. Security Council.  He is also someone who knows Putin well.  Americans increasingly see Putin as an unreconstructed KGB bad guy.  Nastase sees him as a man who is reconstructing the Russian oligarchy and one who has to play a domestic political game.

Nastase said there was a very important internal component to Putin’s Munich speech.  When the Soviet Union went out of the Evil Empire business, its military-industrial complex almost went broke. Almost overnight, what had been the highest social stratum fell to near-bankruptcy and disdain.  Putin’s new oligarchy is aimed at restoring some of their stature so that they can support him — or his designated successor — in the coming Russian election. 

Putin is playing the Russian domestic political game shrewdly.  His supporters used the U.N’s Oil-for-Food scam to obtain monies that were dumped into his political party.  In that same period, he gave some of the former Soviet military-industrial class control of materials and resources that were useful to them in regaining markets for Russian-made weapons.  That also accounts for Putin’s sale of the very capable TOR M-1 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, which is thought to be deploying it to protect its nuclear sites.  In short, Putin is playing a heavy capitalist hand to entrench his own political future and legacy.  It’s all about market share, and restoring the privileges to one former Soviet privileged class.

So why the harsh words for the United States?  According to Nastase, it’s all about respect.  Tough talk from the Russian strongman, unanswered in the halls of the U.N. or on the front pages of the Kremlin-controlled press, is how Putin gains respect and sets his domestic political power in stone.  Appearing strong enough to take on the Americans — even rhetorically — will play well among the Moscow cognoscenti.

Putin is not another Chirac.  The French president has made a career of obstreperous anti-Americanism.  Putin hasn’t.  When he talks, we should listen.  And reach out to his political opponents.  Giving them attention and respect may be an answer to Putin’s Munich.  Or even prevent another.