Fifteen years ago in Munich, Vladimir Putin shook the West with a sharp attack on its efforts to bend the world to its will. The West chose not to listen. As the clouds of war gather over Europe, one has to ask if that was wise.
With US officials anonymously briefing journalists that Russia will invade Ukraine within days, one wonders how things came to this. The optimism that prevailed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union some 30 years ago has been replaced by very real fears of war in Europe. Something went badly wrong. What, precisely?
Roughly at the mid-point between the end of the Cold War and today, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gave a speech which provides an explanation, and which historians may well look back to as something of a turning point. Delivered to the Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 10, 2007, that’s 15 years ago last week, the speech was interpreted by many as a declaration of war on the West. This was a misinterpretation. Putin didn’t threaten the West with anything. Instead, he simply gave it a warning – if it continued along the same path, it would sow the seeds of its own destruction. Time has perhaps proven him right.
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In his speech, Putin made a number of specific complaints. First, he objected to the idea of a unipolar order in which one country, the US, has dominated all others. This model, he said, “is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.” On the one hand, power was shifting; on the other hand, the unipolar model provided “no moral foundations for modern civilization.”