President Putin cannot complain that his Munich speech in February 2007 went down in history unnoticed. Far from that. Many Western observers have compared it to the historic Fulton Speech by Churchill and suggested that the Russian president had declared a new Cold War.
There were of course a few perceptive people who took Putin’s speech for what it was: an energetic attempt by the Russian leader to make Russia’s security concerns heard and taken into account. Moreover, in spite of his trademark aggressive speaking style, Putin has left little doubt that Russia is open to an honest and mutually respectful dialog with the West.
Quite aware that President George W. Bush is under attack, not only from a Democratic Congress but increasingly by members of his own party as well, the Russian leader, while quite critical of the United States, continue to declare not only his admiration for the U.S. president but identified him as a man he could continue to “do business with.” In the Russian version of the speech, Putin gave pretty clear indications that despite everything W. has done and is still doing, he is still Putin’s friend and that, if the U.S. president is still interested, he could be in a position to reach important agreements with Russia on areas important to U.S. policy but that, because of the near total focus on Iraq, have been neglected. In other words, after the harsh words, Putin offered a life preserver for the embattled president. The question now: will Bush take it?
Today, we know the answer: he did.
The "2+2" talks held last week in Moscow between Secretaries Rice and Gates and their Russian counterparts, Lavrov and Serdyukov, gave clear indications that the U.S. was ready to compromise on the issue that had been upsetting Russia the most: the deployment of elements of the anti-missile defense in Eastern Europe.
Rice and Gates came to Moscow on the heels of a letter that Bush sent to Putin with an offer to formalize the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on a broad range of issues. The details of the letter have not been released, but it reportedly outlined a strategic framework allowing the two countries to work together on counterterrorism, nuclear arms control, and nonproliferation. Next week, Bush is traveling to Russia to meet with Putin, and it’s expected that a formal document will be signed in Sochi.
Putin’s Munich message hasn’t been lost in Europe, either. At a recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, German and French representatives spoke against offering the NATO Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine. The accession of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO had been vehemently opposed by the Kremlin.
The signs of the West willing to listen to Russia and to engage in substantive, however difficult at first, negotiations give reason for optimism. It will be up to the next Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, to yield crops sown by his predecessor a year ago.
President Putin’s Munich speech didn’t provoke a new Cold War. Rather, it might have prevented it.