By Thomas E. Ricks and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 11, 2007
MUNICH, Feb. 10 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, in some of his harshest criticism of the United States since he took office seven years ago, said Saturday that Washington's unilateral, militaristic approach had made the world a more dangerous place than at any time during the Cold War.
"The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way," he said in an address at an annual international security conference here. "Nobody feels secure anymore, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law."
Putin criticized the expansion of NATO, saying the alliance's placement of military forces on Russia's borders reduces "the level of mutual trust." He said the U.S. desire to place antimissile systems in Eastern Europe could further upset the international balance of power and embolden the United States in its foreign policy decisions.
The Russian president defended his country's arms sales to Iran as a way of reaching out to that Middle Eastern power, which is under pressure from the United States and Europe to curtail its nuclear program. Russia has supplied some air defense weapons to Iran because, he said, "we don't want Iran to feel cornered."
Dozens of foreign and defense ministers and other officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and an American congressional delegation, attended the meeting. An Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, also was present and is scheduled to address the conference Sunday after Gates speaks.
Several U.S. politicians in attendance sharply criticized Putin's remarks, which Russia specialists said were familiar in their assertiveness but unusual in their hostility toward the United States.
The White House also reacted strongly. "We are surprised and disappointed with President Putin's comments," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. "His accusations are wrong. We expect to continue cooperation with Russia in areas important to the international community such as counterterrorism and reducing the spread and threat of weapons of mass destruction."
The back-and-forth underscored the recent stark changes in U.S.-Russian relations. The friendship that was struck when President Bush first met Putin and said he had looked into the former KGB colonel's soul in 2001 has soured as the Kremlin suppressed political opposition at home, used its energy resources to pressure its neighbors and split with the White House over Iraq, Iran and other issues.
Bush has grown increasingly disaffected with Putin and occasionally tried to prod him to recommit to democracy and better relations with his neighbors, only to be rebuffed. Bush has been reluctant to force a more direct confrontation out of worry that it would push Putin further from the West and because he needs Russia's help to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
In recent days, top Bush administration officials have met in Washington with Garry Kasparov, the former chess grandmaster who has emerged as a leading figure in Russia's marginalized political opposition. Kasparov has said that he advised the officials that lecturing Russia on democracy can be counterproductive but that they should not pretend Putin is one of them, either. "That's why I say, 'Don't interfere, just don't support Putin,' " Kasparov said.
Putin has said that U.S. criticism of his rollback of democracy stems from a Cold War mentality, and he has long opposed the U.S. operation in Iraq. But his remarks here seemingly were not prompted by any particular provocation.
In a tone that was more a considered lecture than a Khrushchevian dais-thumper, Putin said Russia would pursue an independent foreign policy. "We are not going to change this tradition today."
Putin called on the West to resist pushing Russia to be more democratic and more respectful of human rights. "Russia is constantly being taught democracy, and the people who try to teach it don't want to learn it themselves," he said.
Putin ended his critique of the post-Cold War world by attacking the West's view of international relations. Stability and economic justice, he said, should be "not only for the chosen ones, but for everybody."
During Putin's 32-minute address, several members of the U.S. delegation frowned or looked away. Gates, a professional Sovietologist, stared down at notes he was writing. Asked for comment afterward, Gates smiled and shook his head.
After speaking, Putin took questions from the audience, elaborating on several points but backing down from none of them. Explaining his view that the world is now more dangerous than it was during the Cold War, he said that back then, "it was a fragile peace, a scary peace, but it was fairly reliable, as it turns out. Today it is less reliable."
In his one peace offering, Putin called Bush "my friend." Bush is "criticized for everything he does, but he is a decent man," Putin said.
Putin also alluded to Russia's indirect cutoff of crucial energy supplies to Europe twice in the past two years, insisting that Russia's actions are simply intended to put its energy exports on a transparent, market-based system built around long-term contracts.
Some European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, saw his attack on the United States as a preemptive measure to deflect criticism of Russia that has been building in European capitals. In addition to an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy groups and political opponents, Russia has antagonized some in Europe with its use of energy as a tool of foreign policy.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who also attended the meeting, said he was disappointed by Putin's remarks. He said NATO and the United States had been forthright in their communications with Moscow on the eastward expansion of NATO and had made clear that such moves should not be interpreted as a security threat.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that much of Putin's address was "Cold War rhetoric" and that his comments about Iran were "outrageous" and "provocative."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) added, "If you're waiting for Russia to be constructive on Iran, forget it." Putin "did more in a single speech to unite Europe and America than anything we could have done in a decade," Graham said, referring to tensions over the war in Iraq.
Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.