Some events make a big splash the next day – and quickly disappear from the news. And then there are others that take a while to sink in – but which grow in significance, the more people have a chance to think about them. Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich security conference on February 10th falls into the latter category.
Putin’s speech was startlingly blunt. He told his audience that he was going to "avoid excessive politeness" and he was as good as his word. The most striking passages were his attacks on American foreign policy. How’s this for example – "Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of conflicts." As well as laying into American unipolarity which "can be no moral foundation for modern civilisation", Putin attacked specific western policies on issues like Nato expansion, arms control and missile defence.
The vehemence of his attack took many in his audience aback, even at the time. But senior British, German and American officials seem, if anything, more shaken after having had some time to reflect on Putin’s words. Senator John McCain was in the audience and gave a fairly robust response to the Russian president. But McCain’s people say that some of their Russian contacts have since told them that they should regard Putin’s speech as the equivalent of Churchill’s "iron curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri. A senior European diplomat says that Chancellor Merkel’s advisors in Berlin were "still reeling" from Putin’s broadside, days later.
A senior British minister says that Putin’s speech fits into a trend of increasing Russian nationalism that has been evident for some time. He says that the British have tried to explain that they support the spread of freedom and democracy to places like Ukraine because they are in favour of freedom and democracy – not because of any desire to encircle Russia.
But Putin does not believe this for a moment.