Putin v. The West Began 16 Years Ago In Munich — And Nobody Noticed
The Munich Security Conference of 2023 takes place this weekend. The 2007 edition was a turning point for the world, where Vladimir Putin made his intentions clear — and today it all looks destined to arrive at the invasion of Ukraine.
PARIS — The Munich Security Conference, which runs through Sunday, has often been described as the "Davos of Defense," where generals take the stage instead of CEOs. It is also where, 16 years ago, Vladimir Putin made it clear to the world that he would invade Ukraine.
This is obviously an oversimplification. Still, it's worth returning to the Munich Conference of 2007 when the Russian President announced to the West that the post-Soviet party was over.
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Putin delivered a brutal and cutting speech in the German city that was largely overlooked at the time. He had already been in power for seven years, had led the war in Chechnya, and stabilized the situation in Russia after the tumultuous 1990s. By 2007, he was ready to tell the West how he really saw the world.
He launched a scathing critique of the unipolar world, led by the sole superpower at the time, the United States, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "It is a world of one master, one sovereign," he said.
And for the first time, he denounced NATO's expansion to the East, declaring: "We are legitimately entitled to openly ask against whom this expansion is being carried out."
What's Putin thinking
As observed by Andrei Grachev, a longtime spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev: "Everyone then considered Putin a lame duck. His speech in Munich was not taken too seriously."
Grachev, who is no fan of Putin's, returned to that fateful speech in his recent book The World Will Never Be The Same Again.: "Few participants that day understood that it was not the voice of a man of the past, nostalgic for a bygone era, but the cry of a new version of Putin 2.0 threatening a new war."
The following year, the war broke out in Georgia.
The pragmatist became an ideologue.
For almost a year now, since he made the fateful decision to invade Ukraine, everyone has been asking "what is in Vladimir Putin's head?" And in parallel, we wonder how the Russian population reacts.
Grachev writes that Putin chose to respond to the Russian people's distress in facing the Soviet collapse by "mobilizing the people behind their leader in the fight for the restoration of historical justice and the deserved greatness of the country."
"Becoming official," he adds, "this ideology was the origin of a radical turning point in Putin's domestic policy towards a confrontation with the West. The pragmatist thus became an ideologue."
Grachev does not spare the West, which he says was guilty of arrogance towards Russia at the time of the collapse of the communist bloc, and its true "strategic error" in refusing to create a collective security structure integrating Russia.
The resolute West has now understood Putin's message.
But he explains well how Putin's transformation is above all a matter of power, how he aims to put the country and the world in a state of permanent tension, as a kind of system rather than an instrument to use when needed.
This framework makes sense as the war in Ukraine drags into a long war. In the absence of any Russian representative this year, the Munich Conference will not have time to reconsider missed opportunities before and after 2007. Yet the West stands resolute, having now understood that Putin wants confrontation.