Russian President Vladimir V. Putin blamed U.S. policy yesterday for inciting other countries to seek nuclear weapons to defend themselves from an “almost uncontained use of military force” – a stinging attack that underscored growing tensions between Washington and Moscow.
“Unilateral, illegitimate actions have not solved a single problem; they have become a hotbed of further conflicts,” Putin said at a security forum attracting senior officials from around the world. “One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”
The Bush administration said that it was “surprised and disappointed” by Putin’s remarks at the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy. “His accusations are wrong,” said Gordon Johndroe, President Bush’s national security spokesman.
In what the Russian leader’s spokesman acknowledged was his harshest criticism of the United States, Putin attacked Bush’s administration for stoking a new arms race by planning to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and for backing a U.N. plan that would grant virtual independence to Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was also attending the conference, described Putin’s remarks as “the most aggressive speech from a Russian leader since the end of the Cold War.”
The U.S. and an increasingly assertive Russia have butted heads often in the past year, with Vice President Dick Cheney accusing Moscow of using its energy resources as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.” Washington has also been angered by Russia’s reluctance to impose meaningful sanctions against Iran, which is accused of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic energy program.
But Putin said it was “the almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations” that was forcing countries opposed to Washington to seek to build up nuclear arsenals. “It is a world of one master, one sovereign. … It has nothing to do with democracy,” he said. “This is nourishing the wish of countries to get nuclear weapons.
“This is very dangerous; nobody feels secure anymore, because nobody can hide behind international law,” Putin told the gathering.
Putin did not mention the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but he voiced concern about NATO’s expansion plans as possible challenges to Russia.
“The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance or with ensuring security in Europe,” Putin said. “On the contrary, it is a serious factor provoking reduction of mutual trust.”
On the missile defense system, Putin said, “I don’t want to accuse anyone of being aggressive,” but he suggested it would seriously change the balance of power and could provoke an unspecified “asymmetric” response.
On Kosovo, Moscow has said a solution imposed against Serbia’s consent could serve as a model for other separatist provinces elsewhere in the world. Washington, which supports Kosovo’s independence, maintains that the Kosovo situation is a “one-off” because the province has been under U.N. rule since 1999, when Serbian forces were ejected after a brief aerial war with NATO.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had little to say about Putin’s comments, remarking only that the Russian leader “was very candid.”
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he was disappointed by Putin’s criticism about NATO expansion. “Who can be worried that democracy and the rule of law is coming closer to somebody’s border?” he asked.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president’s speech was not “confrontational” and attributed his blunt words to the sense that the number of conflicts fomented by Washington “was constantly growing,” and that international law was being undermined by such actions. The Baltimore Sun