U.S.-Russian Exchange Dominates Munich Meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered sharp criticism of the United States' role in the world at a weekend security conference in Munich. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the lead in replying for the Bush administration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's catch up on the news from the confrontation between the United States and Russia. An exchange of words over the weekend reminded some of the old enemy - the former Soviet Union. Very different views of the world went on display at a regional security conference in Munich. One view belonged to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The other view was that of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

NPR's Emily Harris was listening.

EMILY HARRIS: President Putin spoke Saturday and painted the world as dominated by one center of power: the United States. He said the U.S. is using diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian means to impose its will. Putin called this undemocratic and especially criticized what he said is an almost uncontained hyper use of force that is bringing the world to the abyss of one conflict after another.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) This is very dangerous. It leads to the situation when nobody feels secure anymore. The nomination of the factor of force is nourishing the thrust of countries to get weapons of mass destruction.

HARRIS: Putin didn't mention specific conflicts, but he has been very critical of U.S. military action in Iraq. Putin did call President Bush a friend. He said he agreed with Mr. Bush that Russia and the United States will not be enemies again.

Defense Secretary Gates made the most direct response to Putin when he spoke Sunday morning. First, Gates reminded the audience that both he and Putin are former spies.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): And I guess old spies have a habit of blunt speaking. However, I've been to reeducation camp.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: But then Gates got more serious and said there is not a new Cold War going on, and nobody wants a new Cold War with Russia. Still, he made it clear it's a tough relationship.

Mr. GATES: Russia is a partner in endeavors. But we wonder too about some Russian policies that seem to work against international stability, such as its arms transfers and its temptation to use energy resources for political coercion. And as the NATO secretary-general said, Russia need not fear law-based democracies on its borders.

HARRIS: Some of this is familiar terrain. Russians frequently complained about NATO expansion and particularly about the U.S. missile defense system that's planned for Eastern Europe. Gates responded by saying the missile defenses aren't intended to be used against Russia.

On Iran, Putin gave a somewhat mixed message. He defended Russia's sale of an air defense system to Iran because he said he didn't Tehran to feel cornered. But Putin also said he did not understand why Iran has not responded to questions about its nuclear program the U.N. oversight agency wants answered.

Iran's point man on nuclear issues, Ali Larijani, also attended the conference. He said Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons.

Mr. ALI LARIJANI (Secretary of Supreme National Security Council, Iran): (Through translator) First of all, we do have a clear platform by the eminent religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons are unlawful, are wrong. These views are being obeyed in our country.

Another point is that if we would pursue any nuclear weapon program, the other neighboring countries are going to embark on the same trend, and that would raise another nuclear arm race in our region, which is another source of threat and violation of peace and security in our region.

HARRIS: Larijani said Iran wants to solve this conflict through negotiations. While in Munich, he met with some European officials to talk. Little concrete came of that. Participants said there are some ideas that could lead to compromise, but all would need more discussion.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Munich.

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