Vladimir Putin gave a speech to the Valdai Discussion Club in October. In other speeches over the past year, Putin has covered a great deal of ground, some of it apparently designed to distract. A few themes emerge. Russia is surrounded by a warlike NATO. The fall of the Soviet Union was one of history’s greatest tragedies. Russian people must be protected wherever they are.
Commentary on the Valdai speech is all over the map: it’s a wakeup call to the West to end its meddling; it’s equivalent to Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech; it’s a threat of general war; it’s an olive branch to the West. The speech contains many sound bites and digressions that can be assembled in support of many hypotheses. But I’d like to look at the major theme of the speech. The first half sets out a premise that the world is facing chaos caused by the United States and its unwillingness to consult with Russia. The second half argues vaguely and loosely for a way to end that chaos and prevent more: Russia is a great power and therefore should, with the United States and perhaps others, determine how the world is to be run.
I think there are a number of problems with Putin’s analysis. But I want to concentrate on his argument.
Putin’s title was “New Rules or a Game without Rules.” He lays the groundwork starting here
As we analyse today’s situation, let us not forget history’s lessons. First of all, changes in the world order – and what we are seeing today are events on this scale – have usually been accompanied by if not global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive local-level conflicts. Second, global politics is above all about economic leadership, issues of war and peace, and the humanitarian dimension, including human rights.
and ending here. Read the whole section. Heck, read the whole speech.
But these attempts are increasingly divorced from reality and are in contradiction with the world’s diversity. Steps of this kind inevitably create confrontation and countermeasures and have the opposite effect to the hoped-for goals. We see what happens when politics rashly starts meddling in the economy and the logic of rational decisions gives way to the logic of confrontation that only hurts one’s own economic positions and interests, including national business interests.
The United States has upset the international applecart in a unipolar world. The system put in place after World War II “has become seriously weakened, fragmented and deformed.” The United States is trying to force its will on other nations and shows them no respect. The word respect appears twenty-two times in the speech and discussion.
What is needed is world order.
The main thing is that this system needs to develop, and despite its various shortcomings, needs to at least be capable of keeping the world’s current problems within certain limits and regulating the intensity of the natural competition between countries.
Things can only get worse if we continue this way. What is the way out?
…it is obvious that success and real results are only possible if key participants in international affairs can agree on harmonising basic interests, on reasonable self-restraint, and set the example of positive and responsible leadership. We must clearly identify where unilateral actions end and we need to apply multilateral mechanisms, and as part of improving the effectiveness of international law, we must resolve the dilemma between the actions by international community to ensure security and human rights and the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of any state.
He mentions “improving the work” of the UN and the OSCE, but does not make them central to reconstructing order in the world.
In light of the fundamental changes in the international environment, the increase in uncontrollability and various threats, we need a new global consensus of responsible forces.
A “hasty backstage decision” on Ukraine’s participation in the EU did not take Russia’s interests into account. “Nobody wanted to listen to us and nobody wanted to talk.” Russia’s agenda is fully peaceful and democratic.
The allegations and statements that Russia is trying to establish some sort of empire, encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbours, are groundless. Russia does not need any kind of special, exclusive place in the world – I want to emphasise this. While respecting the interests of others, we simply want for our own interests to be taken into account and for our position to be respected.
During the question period, Putin denied that Russia wanted “a leading role”.
Igor Ivanov, Russian Foreign Minister from 1998 to 2004 and probably speaking for the Kremlin, expresses concern with the variety of interpretations of Putin’s Valdai speech and offers a summary similar to what I’ve presented.
The accumulation of elements of instability in various parts of the world, paralysis, stagnation, the degradation of basic international institutions for security and development, the rapid rise of political extremism and the erosion of established systems of power, the ever-narrowing space for strategic planning and strategic manoeuvres – these are just a few of the most visible manifestations of the impending chaos that will soon hit international affairs.
A new world order is needed.
But who should we build this new world order with? The Russian President offered a clear and logical answer to this question: We are willing to actively cooperate with any and all countries that share our concerns about the current state of global politics, and we are prepared to work together to rebuild its controllability.
In an interview with Chinese media, Putin starts with
It is worth noting that all the decisions reached within the framework of the Forum are adopted on the basis of the principles of mutual respect, accommodation of the interests of each other, which reflects the spirit of APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic cooperation]. Under the current conditions, when some countries prefer to act on the international arena using the methods of political, economic and often even coercive pressure the role of APEC as an effective coordinating mechanism for building a new regional architecture is indispensable.
In two sentences, “The United States has too long been too influential in world affairs. Russia is a great power, too, and we want our say.” This could be extended to mean that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is its way of making its say heard on the world stage, but the words of the speech don’t support that. Rather, Putin casts that intervention as a defensive move intended to stop the United States from undermining Russia directly.
Chaos as the alternative to a strong state is a continuing theme in Russian politics. In 2011, Putin said that demonstrators against his election were sowing chaos. The 1990s are seen by many Russians as times of chaos, ended by Putin’s election as president. The first chaotic decades of the twentieth century ended with Bolshevists establishing the Soviet Union. The Romanov dynasty ended the Time of Troubles stretching from the sixteenth into the seventeenth century. Strong leaders bring an end to chaos.
Internationally, chaos in the Middle East threatens Assad, the last reliable Russian client in the area and owner of the port of Tartus, open to Russian warships. Islamist violence there is not far geographically from Russia’s volatile and Muslim Caucasus. The chaos of smaller nations choosing their own direction allowed the Soviet satellites and even the three former Baltic Soviet Republics to join the EU and NATO. Chaos at home would risk unseating Putin himself.
The United States has taken too many liberties in a unipolar world and produces chaos as a result of bad decisions; consultation with Russia would bring the world back into control. Consultation, however, does not mean agreement. Russia has been a part of the G8 and G20, and NATO formed a NATO-Russia council for consultation. President Victor Yanukovich consulted with Russia as well as with Europe in developing his economic program up until the time he left Kiev.
Although consultation and respect are the words he uses, Putin seems to want more than consultation. A possible interpretation of Putin’s proposal is a great-power condominium between the US and Russia as the way to rebuild the world’s controllability. But the two-power system of the Cold War is no longer relevant, great-power condominiums much less so. The idea has been normalized that other nations, like Ukraine, have their say in their future. All indications are that the Middle East will be unstable for some time to come, and that there is little that Russia or the United States can do about it.
The Valdai speech seemed to me to convey a plaintive tone, something perhaps echoed in a more recent Putin speech* to the Russian geographical society extolling the value of love. Perhaps love, or a particular kind of respect, is what he wants for himself on the international scene. And if not love, then fear.
Update (November 11, 2014): Gleb Pavlovsky has a somewhat similar take, with more emphasis on Putin’s emotions.
Photo from *the Ria Novosti article on Putin’s speech on love. That link now gets you a 404 error on a website called “Sputnik News,” which has taken over the Ria Novosti franchise. Jeffrey Lewis provides a screenshot. Now the Kremlin has two international propaganda channels, RT being the other.