The annual Munich Security Conference will take place later this week (February 17–19). And it was ten years ago at this forum that President Vladimir Putin delivered an inflammatory speech detailing Russia’s deep dissatisfaction with the world order. A decade hence, Russian official media is today full of commentary on the spectacular success the country has purportedly achieved by following the course set by that speech (TASS, RIA Novosti, February 10). Although he did not, in fact, say much in his 2007 Munich address that had not been said by Russian officials before, Western participants fixated on the assertive way that Putin delivered Moscow’s complaints about the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and objections to the United States’ global “hegemony.” That demonstrated confidence was based on three key assumptions: a) the West was weak and divided; b) Russia was rising and regaining its strength; and c) the lectures about values and the deficiencies in Russian democracy were attempts to deny a resurgent Russia its legitimate place in the multipolar world. All three assumptions now need serious rethinking. And yet, Putin is not merely persisting in staying the Munich course, but has upped the stakes and now is taking risks far beyond the level that his Western (as well as Chinese) counterparts see as acceptable (RBC, February 10).
The proposition alluded to in Putin’s 2007 Munich speech that most dramatically rings false today has to do with Russia’s ostensible trajectory of growth and prosperity. The country’s recovery from the spasm of crisis in 2008 was weak, and stagnation settled in by 2013, despite renewed inflows of petro-revenues—which, regardless, have since shrunk by half (Moscow Echo, February 1). Neither spending on building up military might nor the level of corruption has been reduced, and so the budget remains in the red (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 9). Export earnings fell by another 16 percent in 2016, and the government’s guidelines about the expansion of high-tech sectors have long stopped making any practical sense (Gazeta.ru, February 8). Russia’s investment ratings remain in the “junk” category, and the reputation of such state-owned champions as Gazprom, Rosneft or VTB has plummeted (Newsru.com, February 7). Putin keeps arguing that Russia’s foundation is so solid that its beautiful future is “inevitable,” but this rhetoric rings false and hollow (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 10).
The economic crisis has certainly hit the West as well. And while the US registered eight years of modest growth, the European Union never quite recovered from that storm, and there is no certainty about the prospects for the near future (Forbes.ru, February 9). This divergence brings much political turmoil, and Moscow counts every quarrel among European states and every disparaging statement in Washington about the EU as a bonus. Exploiting divisions has long been Russia’s favorite policy toward the West, and now the arsenal of intrigues is enriched by cyberattacks targeting the US elections, Norwegian national security or the Italian foreign ministry (RBC, February 10). Still, all these attempts at sowing discord have not diminished NATO’s commitment to protecting its Baltic flank, and the added pressure from Russia’s planned large-scale military exercise Zapad 2017 only pushes Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to seek stronger assurances regarding collective defense (Newsru.com, February 10). US Vice President Michael Pence is expected to confirm Washington’s commitment to stand by these allies at the Munich conference, and President Donald Trump has time to adjust his stance before the NATO Brussels summit in late May.
Upgrading Russia’s bilateral relations with the United States to the status of “equals” was in fact one of Putin’s goals in making his blustery speech ten years ago; and Trump’s “friendly” signals during the 2016 US presidential election campaign recently revived hopes in Moscow for the possibility of engaging in values-free geopolitical bargaining. But three weeks into Trump’s super-charged presidency, these hopes are fading (Gazeta.ru, February 9). The US intelligence community has effectively traced various Russian intrigues back to their source, and the White House can neither dismiss nor disprove this evidence (Politcom.ru, February 9). Ambivalent US-Russian cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State can yield only so many political dividends, and irreconcilable differences over Iran could cut this suppositional joint offensive short (Kommersant, February 9). Ideas about relaunching efforts at strategic arms control, which Putin emphasized ten years ago, are presently in short supply in both Moscow and Washington. Indeed, a new surge in US investment into building a “missile shield” fits right into Trump’s “America first” slogan (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, February 10).
One big change in Russia’s dialogue with the West is that nobody lectures Putin on the promotion of democracy anymore, but this does not mean he won that argument. In the West, Russia is widely recognized for what it is—a deeply entrenched corrupt autocracy—and this means that, in the company of Western peers, Putin cannot be treated as “an equal.” Ten years ago, he still saw the benefit of maintaining the façade of democratic institutions, and so he orchestrated the transfer of presidential authority to Dmitry Medvedev, who took up the slogan of “modernization.” It was never developed into a coherent program but still helped to reset and re-energize relations with the West, which were badly damaged by Russia’s August 2008 war with Georgia. The negative impact from the on-going war with Ukraine is much greater, and even those politicians in the West who entertain ideas about befriending Putin are fully aware that he is steering Russia along the track of de-modernization (RBC, February 3). This descending trajectory manifests itself in aggravated pressure on every potential source of political dissent—from the European University in St. Petersburg to opposition leader Alexei Navalny. And this is perceived in Europe as Russia’s new normal (Republic.ru, February 9).
It would be wrong to believe that Putin has unwaveringly stayed on the strategic course set by his 2007 Munich speech—or that the West has not taken his warning seriously. In fact, he had stumbled back and forth before fears of “color revolutions” pushed him to forcefully annex Ukraine’s Crimea. His choices have not been informed by a strategic vision but determined by the maturing of his predatory authoritarian regime, which continues to grow more corrupt, degrade domestic political institutions, and suppress Russia’s civil society. What makes fellow-autocrats, like for instance Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see EDM, February 6), increasingly uncomfortable about joining ranks with Putin is the unique aggressiveness of his regime, which is certainly not a response to the NATO “threat” but a part of the Putinist system’s particular survival strategy. Every slip on the oily slope of Russia’s decline produces a new challenge to this survival, so concerned neighbors have to prepare for new power gambles.