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By Richard Weitz : BIO| 21 Feb 2020
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Russian President Vladimir Putin began his February 10 speech at the Munich Security Conference by commenting that the meeting's informality "allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. This conference's format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems. And if my comments seem unduly polemical, pointed or inexact to our colleagues, then I would ask you not to get angry with me. After all, this is only a conference."

True to his word, Putin proceeded to deliver his harshest critique of U.S. foreign policy as Russia's president. He accused the Bush administration of a "hyper use of military force in international relations," a policy that was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts." Putin also maintained that the United States was trying to impose its "economic, political, cultural and educational policies" on other nations and "overstep[ing] its national borders in every way." He further claimed that the U.S. policy of relying on unilateral action rather than international law and the United Nations, he claimed, has created a situation in which "no one feels safe," leading countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction simply for self-defense.

Putin's speech offers some revealing insights into how he and other Russian officials define "democracy." In his assessment, the concept should apply to relations among countries as much as to their domestic policies. He claimed that many contemporary global problems resulted from Washington's acting as if we lived in a unipolar world "in which there is one master, one sovereign." U.S. aspirations for global hegemony, he suggested, were ironic given that Russians "are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves." Unlike many in the West, Putin evidently sees little connection the domestic character of a regime and its foreign policy.

Putin insisted that only the United Nations could legitimately sanction the use of military force in cases other than self-defense. The Russian president noted that, unlike NATO or the EU, the UN alone has a universal character. Russia considered it unacceptable when NATO and EU members claimed that their two institutions, which exclude Russia as well other important countries from membership, could legitimize military interventions in foreign countries. Other senior Russian officials—citing the country's diplomatic influence, recent economic revival, and newfound status as an energy superpower—have also denounced attempts to decide international security issues without Moscow's participation.

Putin singled out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for special attention. "People are trying to transform the OSCE into a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries. According to Putin, out-of-control OSCE bureaucrats and pernicious nongovernmental organizations—"formally independent but purposefully financed and therefore under control" (i.e., of rich Westerners like George Soros and former Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky)—are also trying to use the institution to interfere in its member countries' internal affairs and "determine how these states should live and develop." In the president's assessment, "such interference does not promote the development of democratic states at all. On the contrary, it makes them dependent and, as a consequence, politically and economically unstable."

Since at least 2004, Russian officials have complained that the OSCE has become excessively preoccupied with promoting democracy and human rights in the former Soviet republics. In December 2005, the chief of the Russian General Staff accused the OSCE of becoming a surveillance agency for overseeing democratic principles in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) without regard for these governments' right to determine their own destiny. Russian officials have fought vigorously to reduce the OSCE's election monitoring missions and other democracy-promotion activities in the CIS. In December 2006, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that a failure to reform the OSCE would call into question the rationale for its existence.

Putin's attack underscores a growing divergence in the American and Russian visions for international institutions such as the OSCE. U.S. officials seek to rebalance OSCE geographically but not functionally. They want the OSCE to continue devoting considerable attention to political reform issues, but direct more resources towards monitoring elections and other threats to democracy in the former Soviet Union. The Russian government wants to rebalance the OSCE functionally by increasing its support for multinational military, political, and economic cooperation. When it comes to the OCSE's so-called human dimension, however, Russian officials would prefer that the organization direct its focus elsewhere.

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