FEBRUARY 13, 2023
Photo credit: TASS
Sixteen years ago, on 10 February 2007, Russian President Putin delivered a landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference, a clear statement of post- Cold War Russian foreign policy, focusing on the need for multilateralism and international solidarity. The mainstream media did not give much visibility to Putin’s security analysis in 2007, and still fails to do so. Yet, it is worth our while to revisit that speech.
In 2007 I did recognize the implications of Putin’s speech and even distributed the text to my students at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. Sometimes I distribute the Putin speech together with President John F. Kennedy’s brilliant commencement address at American University on 10 June 1963, an appeal to rationality that is as relevant today as it was then. If everyone would read it and implement what is in there, we would not be in the dangerous and tragic situation we are in today.
Allow me to quote Kennedy: “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world.”
Sometimes I share with my students the article published in the New York Times by our diplomat par excellence George F. Kennan, in which he warned about breaking our word to Russia by expanding NATO eastwards, contrary to assurances given by our Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev: “Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the Cold War, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict?…[B]luntly stated…expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking … ”
Bells should have rung when Putin gave his Munich speech in 2007, ten years after Kennan’s warning, in which Putin calmly expressed concern about: “the so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each. It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders, and we continue to strictly fulfil the treaty obligations and do not react to these actions at all. I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr, Manfred Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee”.
Unfortunately, the reception to Putin’s speech in the West was minimal. His warnings and predictions were not taken seriously. This is perhaps because we have a distorted perception of reality, a kind of solipsism, embedded in our self-centered world view. Most people in the West were and remain unaware of Putin’s speech or for that matter of the texts of the two proposals that he put on the table in December 2021, two draft treaties solidly anchored in the UN Charter concretising the necessity of agreeing on a modus vivendi and building a security architecture for Europe and the world.
The mainstream media bears considerable responsibility for failing to inform the public about Putin’s speech and about his repeated offers to negotiate in good faith as required by article 2(3) of the UN Charter. It is clear that NATO expansion and the weaponization of Ukraine constituted an existential threat to Russia, and that the malevolent demonization of Russia and Putin since the early 2000s entailed a menace, a “threat” of the use of force, which is prohibited in article 2(4) of the UN Charter.
As I understood it then and now — Putin’s speech was an outstretched hand to the West and proof of his readiness to sit down and talk about the new world order after the Cold War.
Michail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltzin and Putin again and again expressed their wish to turn the page on the US/Soviet Union confrontation and start a new page of cooperation for the benefit of all humankind.
There were some politicians and academics in the West who also shared the hope that finally the world could implement disarmament for development and that both major nuclear powers would reduce stockpiles and eventually ban nuclear weapons. Imagine if all the financing that went and still goes into the military, military bases, procurement of tanks, missiles and nuclear weapons became available for financing education, health, housing, infrastructure, research and development!
Humanity had a brief moment of transcendental hope. President Bill Clinton smashed that hope when he consciously broke the promises given by James Baker to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward. This was short-sighted hubris, an expression of the conviction that we were the only super-power, could dictate to others what to do or not do. Western politicians gloated over the fact that Russia would not be able to do anything about our breach of trust. We cheated, as we so often cheat in international relations. I would even say that we have developed a “culture of cheating”, of taking advantage of the other guy whenever possible. It is perceived almost as cleverness, a secular virtue.
And yet, Russia was not threatening anyone in 1997 – Russia wanted to join the West under the banner of the United Nations and the UN Charter, which is akin to a world constitution, the only existing “rules-based international order” the world has. But the US did not share the worldview of multipolarity and multilateralism. And to this day the US still believes in its own “exceptionalism” and in the imperialist fantasies of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wolfowitz.
Wise academics like Professors Richad Falk, Jeffrey Sachs, John Mearsheimer and Noam Chomsky have long recognized the colossal errors committed by American politicians from Clinton to George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Alas, these professors do not sing the song that the military-industrial-financial complex want them to sing, and for this reason the corporate media do not give them visibility.
In a democratic society the public has a right to know and must have access to all sources of information and analysis. Alas, the mainstream media in the US has engaged in Russia-bashing for decades, and has gone out of its way to denigrate Russian politicians, Russian culture, even Russian athletes. I still remember the ridiculous things that were written about Russian athletes during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. I remember the negative caricatures in the press and the incessant defamation of the Russians as totalitarians. It is the artificial creation of such negative feelings toward other peoples and cultures that facilitates war propaganda and serves to justify sanctions and war crimes, all of this in violation of article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in violation of the UNESCO Constitution.
The problem is not limited to the United States – it is emblematic for the entire West. Those professors or journalists who tried to remain objective and report in a balanced way were (and are) denounced as Putin puppets, useful idiots or (in Germany) “Putin Versteher” – as if it were somehow inappropriate to make an effort to understand Putin’s point of view, and not just swallow the skewed narrative that the corporate media sells. One would think that every intelligent person would want to understand the way Putin, Zelinski, Biden, Scholz, Macron, etc. actually see things.
True enough, many of our best minds did realize the danger posed by NATO expansion. Many understood that if we continued provoking the Russian Bear, sooner or later the Bear would respond. Back in August of 2008 when the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, goaded by the US, decided to attack Southern Ossetia, after the decisive and proportionate response by Russia in that short war, I thought that we could have learned something. Alas, we learned nothing and continued the provocations and war-propaganda.
It seems that we in the West live in our own bubbles. First, we are convinced that we are “the good guys” by definition. This is an item of faith. This was drummed into my head in high school in Chicago, in college and law school in Boston. This I absorbed from the press, from Hollywood movies, from literature. The soft and hard indoctrination has been thorough, and our faculty of self-criticism remains woefully underdeveloped. Second, we in the United States are a continent separated by two oceans from Europe, Africa and Asia. We have the illusion that we are invincible. Alas, in the nuclear age there is no place on the planet that is safe.
Allow me to return to the information war and the media. Surely the propaganda that Washington and Brussels produce and disseminate by far outdoes anything that Goebbels ever did with his Nazi propaganda. And it is not just the dis-information and the skewed narratives in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Times, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, El Pais, even the Neue Zürcher Zeitung – it is the suppression of dissent, the suppression of other views and perspectives. That is precisely the reason why millions of people in the West remain so ignorant, and that is why RT and Sputnik are maligned and censored, because “Big Brother” will not allow that the public get the idea that the Ukraine conflict has a long history, that NATO is not the “good guy”. Maybe someday, when we grasp the magnitude of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by NATO member states in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – maybe we will understand that NATO — originally a legitimate defensive alliance — gradually morphed into a criminal organization within the meaning of articles 9 and 10 of the Nuremberg Statute.
 See also my essay https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/09/14/natos-death-wish-will-destroy-not-only-europe-but-the-rest-of-the-world-as-well/
 The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Basic Books, 1997
Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of ten books including “Building a Just World Order” Clarity Press, 2021.
3 thoughts on “COUNTERPUNCH: Remembering Vladimir Putin’s speech of 10 February 2007 at the Munich Security Conference”
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great article as always Dr/Professor De Zayas. thanks for all you do, you don’t get enough praise/credit, and I salute what you do.
Thanks Prof De Zayas – Good to be reminded of Pres Putin’s 2007 speech. It’s shocking that western media have become so dominated by western govts war propaganda and they refuse to question or investigate serious concerns. By doing and not doing they are misinforming their readers, thus dispensing with democratic discussions and aiding the Urkaine war to continue. Hence we can be walking into nuclear war and they know nothing about it. It’s shameful and daunting to see the mess in our media. I contend it but it continues, endlessly.