This article was originally published on May 20, 2016.
This event provides an occasion to examine NATO-Russian relations in the last decade, to analyze and debunk some of Russia’s claims about NATO actions, and to marvel at the clues Putin in fact gave to the world in a speech behind closed doors in 2008 that prefigured the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass.
In one section of the 2008 speech, Putin complained that the Crimea had been received “merely with the decisions of the CPSU Politbureau” — an indication of what was to come in February 2014 when his “little green men” took control there. In 2008, Putin begrudgingly conceded that US President George Bush “managed to act rather effectively in Afghanistan” without noting that before this period, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and killed more than a million civilians. Today, Russia is making overtures to the Taliban.
It is important to note that no official text of Putin’s speech in Bucharest exists and there is reason to believe that after presenting his points aggressively behind closed doors, Putin — then at the end of his term and anticipating Dmitry Medvedev as President — decided to suppress the full text to keep options open for negotiating with NATO.
Unian.net, a pro-Ukrainian web site in Kiev, published the text in full in Ukrainian, Russian, and English, but kremlin.ru, the official Russian government website, did not publish the text and only carried a question-and-answer session with Putin and journalists. Only one journalist referenced the problem of not having the text of Putin’s speech and only working from a paraphrase; Putin batted this issue away, dismissing concerns about the threats he made in his speech as “some sort of religious terror here in anticipation of my speeches” and explaining “in Munich I was speaking at an international conference” and that “implies a certain style, candid and controversial” — but in the end he never supplied the text.
At this press conference, Putin mentioned Ukraine — not the reporters — and only dismissively, in reply to a broader question about NATO’s justification for expansion, that it spreads “democratic values and increased stability in the region.” Putin countered that Ukraine, along with other non-NATO members in Europe, was already a democracy.
Inosmi.ru, a site that publishes translations of the foreign media into Russia, said at the time that “friends of official Kiev gave a transcript of the text of the speech to Kiev.” Inosmi took to task Putin’s claim that “a third” of the population of Ukraine at the time was Russian or Russian-speaking, and said he had mixed up figures and that it was actually only 17% for all of Ukraine and 58.3% for Crimea, and not “90%” as Putin said in the speech.
Kommersant wrote at the time that the NATO meeting was behind closed doors, but that “sources” had told editors the highlights of the speech, including about Ukraine and Georgia and the threat to retaliate by annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, by ostensible analogy with Kosovo.
The New York Times reported that Peskov himself complained that Putin’s remarks were not shown on closed-circuit TV to the news media, indicating that there was no claim that Putin didn’t say what he did, yet Peskov did not supply a copy of the speech himself.
In a news article, RT.com gave a link promising “the full speech” but it doesn’t work and merely re-routes back to the same news article.
A video with excerpts only can be found, with Putin’s claim in the speech that Latvia isn’t democratic because it supposedly does not grants rights to a large Russian minority. Also featured Putin’s complaint that the Russians had withdrawn troops from Eastern Europe but the US did not follow suit.
So the speech and all its implied threats was not contested, but to understand the different ways in which the actualities of Putin’s remarks were perceived, we have only to look at headlines of the day, from the New York Times, the Telegraph in the UK, and Kommersant and News.ru in Russia, respectively:
– Putin, at NATO Meeting, Curbs Combative Rhetoric – New York Times;
– ‘Stay Away,’ Putin Tells NATO – The Telepgrah
– Nato Bloc Broken up into Bloc Shares – Kommersant
Kommersant, a business daily once owned by Boris Berezovsky, then the Georgian TV owner Badri Patarkatsishvili, is now owned by Alisher Usmanov. News.ru, a relatively independent site originally owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, has been owned since 2001 by Gazprom Media, the same owner of Ekho Moskvy. These outlets were much more explicit than their Western counterparts in catching the actual threats under Putin’s supposedly conciliatory rhetoric. Kommersant‘s headline is a sarcastic remark referencing Russian finance and the ownership of shares in a company by different blocs, or majority and minority investors.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the government newspaper of record, while running a neutral headline “Putin Speaks at NATO,” focused on the nuclear side of his speech with the subtitle “He warned that Russia will continue to strengthen its nuclear triad on sea, in the air and on land.” RG said it had obtained the points of Putin’s speech from members of the Russian delegation and contrasted them with Putin’s famous 2007 Munich speech by characterizing it as a “carrot, not a stick” — the same take as RT and the New York Times.
Since the 2008 summit and the veiled and not-so-veiled threats, it has been easier to see in hindsight what the Kremlin’s true intentions were — and the motives for countries wanting to join NATO.
NATO itself adamantly denies Russia’s claims about any “understanding” regarding expansion and says Russia has never been able to back it up. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president has conceded that no such claim was made, although current leaders believe it was.
The 1997 NATO-Russia agreement had other basic assumptions at the time, such as the declaration that NATO and Russia “do not consider each other as adversaries.”
Now they do, as the new US commander of troops in Europe identified Russia as the gravest threat to Europe, following similar proclamations by US and NATO commanders, and Russia routinely denounces NATO’s mere existence and what it sees as a trail of unjustified actions, such as bombing in Libya — although here NATO points out that Russia approved the same two UN Security Council resolution as the US did authorizing NATO members “to take all necessary measures”. Russia agitated for a UN commission to review NATO actions in Libya, but it pronounced that no violations of the resolutions had been made.
NATO goes too far in claiming that NATO as an institution was authorized by these UNSC resolutions — no mention was made of NATO in the resolutions, and the UNSC does not engage with NATO due to the opposition of both permanent and elected members. But certainly members of NATO sitting at the table were authorized to maintain a no-fly zone in Libya.
Montenegro’s accession to NATO and the stationing of US troops in Estonia, which Estonia describes as “possibly for a long time,” are sure to be key themes in the “information war” and efforts at Western counter-propaganda. In an echo of the terms the West has used about Russia’s own actions, the pro-Kremlin site Global Research describes the positioning of these troops as “destabilizing and overthrowing pro-Russian governments using the “hybrid warfare” methods employed by the Western powers during the 2014 coup in Ukraine and the 2011 US-backed insurgency in Syria. It’s interesting how Global Research has tipped its hand, by describing as “pro-Russian” Baltic governments that today are pro-Western, although beset by pro-Kremlin factions in the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population.
Interestingly, in its coverage of Putin’s 2008 speech, Kommersant talked about the possibility of Macedonia’s accession to NATO, which Greece blocked at the 2008 summit. Now the issue of Macedonia’s membership is being discussed again, with the announcement about its neighbor, Montenegro.
Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 20 that NATO “will not be influenced by some kind of outside event or series of lobbying efforts or other things” regarding whom it choses as its members, and that NATO retained its “open door” policy.
But the reality is that until Greece and Macedonia solve the dispute over Macedonia’s name and Germany and until other West European countries leery of crossing Russia are persuaded to relent on Georgia, there is little prospect of membership for these countries. These issues will be discussed more at the next NATO summit on July 8-9 in Warsaw.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick