Russian leader Vladimir Putin is an “autocrat” who wants to bring European diplomacy back to the 1800s, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States said in a speech to the Camden Conference on Friday.
Greece’s Stavros Lambrinidis denounced Putin as a “truly dangerous” leader trying to overthrow a rules-based international system developed after World War II nearly 80 years ago implemented to prevent abuses from leaders like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
“That system is under attack by governments who want to claim that sovereignty belongs to them, not to human beings,” Lambrinidis said.
Lambrinidis’ speech to the Maine foreign policy conference came one day after Russia escalated a massive invasion across Ukraine and as heavy fighting occurred between the two countries on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
While the ambassador spoke about five separate crises facing Europe, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat from climate change, he listed the Russia threat first.
Putin wants to create a new “security architecture” in Europe comparable to the spheres of influence of the 1800s, Lambrinidis said. Creating that security system would involve overthrowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, he said, and teaming up with ally Belarus to recreate the old Soviet Union.
He said the threat from Russia was existential not only to Europe, which could see attacks from Russia in the future, but to the United States because such incursions threaten NATO, the Western world’s military alliance.
“What Mr. Putin is trying to do is build the old Soviet Union under a Russia hat,” he said. “And this is extremely dangerous.”
He was optimistic that sanctions from the European Union and U.S. — which both announced earlier Friday that they would sanction Putin personally — would create “massive economic costs” for Russia, especially in the long-term. It would even prevent Russia’s economy from modernizing in the future, he said.
The conference, the 35th, has been held in Camden since the 1980s, with a focus on international affairs. The theme of the night was challenges facing Europe, a subject conference president Karin Look noted was more relevant on Friday than when it was chosen over a year ago.
Lambrinidis gave his speech, which opened the conference, from the European Union ambassador residence in Washington D.C. in a conference that was primarily virtual due to the pandemic. People watched around the U.S. and the world, including around 200 students.
He called the alliance between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin a “poisonous embrace.” China was one of the few countries not to condemn Russia’s invasion, instead threading a needle on Friday to say both Ukraine’s sovereignty and Russia’s concerns about NATO’s expansion should be considered.
Asked if the West had missed an opportunity to be more welcoming of Russia around a decade ago, Lambrinidis said Putin had long felt ignored and shunned as a world leader and had developed a “delusion of grandeur.”
He said that the U.S. and Europe had likely not taken Russia’s 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia as seriously as they should have. If they had taken that as an indication of how Putin saw the world, including his desire to recreate the old Soviet Union, they might have treated Russia differently, he said.
“I think that we should have focused more on him early on,” Lambrinidis said. “But we didn’t.”
Lambrinidis, who has been involved in European politics for nearly two decades and previously served as Greek foreign minister, has served as European Union’s ambassador to the United States since 2019.
A question-and-answer after Lambrinidis’ remarks was hosted by David Brancaccio, who grew up in Waterville and hosts the public radio show “Marketplace Morning Report.”