Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A President Looks to Shape His Legacy

President Vladimir Putin's strongly worded speech in Munich on Saturday raised hackles in the West, but its primary purpose may have been to set out a new direction in Russian foreign policy for his successor, analysts said Monday.

The president's speech contained his most comprehensive and blunt criticism of the United States yet.

"With this speech Putin began the process of shaping his legacy," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs journal. "We will be hearing more programmatic statements like this."

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that Putin was "laying a market down for his successor."

He noted that Putin's remarks were more in line with recent pronouncements by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov than those of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, both considered leading candidates for the presidency in 2008.

"We do have to take seriously the fact that Putin's speech is much closer in tone to that of Ivanov than Medvedev, who was much more conciliatory" when addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last month, Kuchins said.

In his speech, Putin not only berated Washington, but also touted Russia's resurgence as a major player on the international stage capable of standing up to the United States on a number of issues -- a stance that may reflect the ruling elite's overestimation of the country's long-term strength, analysts said.

"There was nothing really new in Putin's speech, but I suspect that in retrospect we may regard this as the most important foreign policy speech of his tenure as president," Kuchins said.

"The speech reads like a greatest-hits list of Russian grievances toward the West, and especially the United States, over the past 15 years on security issues," he said.

While attacking the United States and NATO, Putin refrained from singling out any European country for criticism -- an indication of his desire to develop ties with the European Union after his post-Sept. 11 overtures toward Washington failed to yield results.

"The relationship with Europe is central for both Putin and Russian foreign policy in general," Lukyanov said.

If Russia and Europe can reach a compromise on energy security policy, "the EU's interest in guaranteed energy supplies will outweigh everything else, and the EU could eventually begin to lobby on Russia's behalf in Washington," he said.

Putin's speech, in which he charged that the United States had "overstepped its borders in every way," seemed to come in response to recently announced U.S. plans to put a missile-defense system in Europe and to increasingly hostile rhetoric coming out of Washington.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that the United States could not predict developments in countries such as Russia, North Korea, China and Iran.

"Gates' testimony was not the biggest straw, but it was certainly the last," said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based World Security Institute.

The Foreign Ministry said Monday that it had asked Washington to clarify Gates' remark.

Safranchuk said the Kremlin's displeasure with U.S. policy had been building for several years, but Putin had avoided open confrontation because he did not want to "frame" his friend, U.S. President George W. Bush. He relied instead on quiet diplomacy to make his point.

"Putin finally decided to put his cards on the table when he realized that no one but the president could sort out the strategic issue of relations with the United States," Safranchuk said.

The president decided to make his feelings public as part of an effort to compel Bush to take a stand on Russian-U.S. relations before the presidential campaigns in both countries heat up, analysts said.

Putin is seeking to ensure an open dialogue with Washington to resolve problems in public, given the long list of private assurances that were not honored, including the tacit assurance that NATO would not expand to the east, Safranchuk said.

"This will either produce an open dialogue that reduces mutual suspicions, or the next round of the Cold War," he said.

Other analysts interviewed for this article disagreed that Putin's speech might herald a new Cold War, but most agreed that relations between Moscow and Washington would cool significantly as elections near, since most presidential hopefuls in the United States -- apart from Democrat Barack Obama -- have been critical of Russia.

In his speech, Putin expressed not just Moscow's frustration with what it perceives as U.S. indifference to Russia's national interests, but also to its increasing confidence that economic growth will continue in the medium term.

"The speech does reflect the confidence that Russia's recovery is long term," Kuchins said. "The point that Putin makes about the emergence of a real multipolar world is very significant, as is his emphasis on the role that the large emerging economies, known as BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India and China], will play."

Putin makes clear that these countries' economic power "will undoubtedly be reflected in growing political power, and the United States had better wrap its mind around dealing with that," he said.

Russian economic growth continues to depend largely on high world prices for energy and other natural resources. Analysts said Moscow's brinkmanship in its relations with Washington could therefore backfire if its global ambitions were to exceed its economic capacity.

Analysts cited the cases of China and India, which have reined in their foreign policy ambitions and refrained from openly challenging the United States despite the fact that their economies are already more diversified than Russia's.

"Russia underestimates its weaknesses and vulnerabilities and is too focused on positive factors. It could be headed for a serious blow," Safranchuk said, adding that Russia might have been better off following China's example and pursuing a more measured foreign policy.