Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 1
Founded in 2004, the Valdai International Discussion Club brings together experts ranging from politicians to economists, public servants, journalists and academics from around the world to analyse and debate on Russia’s role and position in the world. The first meeting was held in Veliky Novgorod near Lake Valdai, hence the name of the club. The goal is to promote dialogue and debate on political, economic, social and other major issues and events of importance both to Russia and the rest of the world.
In 2014 the eleventh meeting was held in Sochi and it was here that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech in the final plenary session of the meeting (as is his custom) that in the future is likely to be seen as signifying a major turning point in geopolitical history. Under the theme of New Rules or a Game Without Rules, Putin declared that Russia will no longer participate in international politics according to rules set by the United States and its allies but will forge its own path as a regional power in its neighbourhood, as determined by the will of the Russian people, pursuing the path of peace and economic development and avoiding war where possible unless threatened by others. By making this statement, Putin has put Russia on a path the country has never trod before – previously Russia in various manifestations has either copied and followed other (usually Western) countries or has cast itself in a messianic role, whether as successor to the Byzantine empire, leader of the Slav nations or leader of the Communist world – and by doing so, has perhaps shown the rest of the world that there is an alternative to the tired Cold War paradigm that posed one set of countries and ideologies against another set of countries and ideologies, and both sets having long outlived their usefulness and relevance to a world beset by ominous developments that transcend political, economic and social divisions.
The Content of Putin’s Speech
Putin noted that current geopolitical institutions, systems and law mechanisms have become weak, distorted and ineffective against a rising tide of violence, instability and brutality in many parts of the world, in particular in parts of the Middle East and in Ukraine. Increasingly countries, Russia included, are searching for ways that will lessen their dependence on the use of the US dollar in trade and are establishing alternative financial and payments systems that do away with the US dollar as the reserve currency. The use of sanctions against Russia and other countries like Iran are undermining trade and causing economic stress in EU countries in spite of the fact that these countries have initiated sanctions under pressure from the US. Putin also referred to the 2013 banking crisis in Cyprus, in which that country’s government attempted to seize monies from uninsured savings accounts in major Cyprus banks as part of a bail-out agreement struck with finance ministers of Eurozone countries with the blessings of the EU and the IMF, as a motivator to seek out alternatives to the current global financial system that help preserve political and economic sovereignty.
From Putin’s point of view, much of the blame for the breakdown in the systems and mechanisms that maintain world peace and stability lies with the United States which, since the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War, has broken its promise made to Russia by then US Secretary of State James Baker that the US would not extend NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact nations, and has sought and instigated regime change in several countries in western Asia and northern Africa as outlined in the Project for the New American Century, authored in part by neoconservative historian Robert Kagan whose wife Victorial Nuland is the current Assistant US State Secretary to John Kerry. Regarding itself as the winner of the Cold War, the US and its allies have tried to impose their own narrowly interpreted and highly militarised solutions onto major world and regional problems and conflicts: solutions that have the effect of throwing gasoline onto fires to put them out. Putin referred to US-led overthrows of governments in Iraq and Libya, and the current US attempt to unseat Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria, with all the dire consequences that have followed and resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees, and large-scale environmental catastrophe that surely must influence global climate change, as examples of such hubris on the part of the Americans.
Having surveyed the sorry state of the world thus far, Putin comes to the question of whether to live by New Rules or No Rules. He explicitly rejects the No Rules option because the current global situation is clearly on the path to No Rules. He reminds his audience that nations must agree on fundamental values and to co-operate in finding collective solutions to common problems and issues. Major participants in such co-operation must lead the way in behaving with self-restraint and in ethical and responsible ways that others will be happy to follow. International co-operation and relations should be based on international laws that are themselves based on moral principles and respect by nations for one another and their interests.
Within this world of New Rules, Putin places Russia decisively on a path in which the country will emphasise pursuing its own development with an emphasis on open, democratic and accountable political and economic institutions, selectively adopting those modern global trends that would enhance the country’s progress and strengthen its society by emphasising traditional values that have stood the country well in times of crisis. Russia will look back into its history, forward into a likely future and around it to find and draw upon those resources and forces that will ensure and enhance its progress. Putin explicitly rejects the idea of Russia becoming an empire again and envisages the country as being a partner willing to work with others on the basis of mutual interest and respect.
The Russian blogger known as chipstone summarises what he believes to be the main points of Putin’s speech, what follows are chipstone’s words (explained further by myself where they don’t appear to be too clear):
1. Russia will not play in the proposed “game”, leading the backstage trade on trifles. But she is ready for any serious discussion and agreement, if they will contribute to the security and will be based on a fair and equal integration of all interests. [Russia refuses to play any more games and indulge in backroom horse-trading on trifling issues; Russia is interested only and ready for serious discussion and agreement based on whether this contributes to collective security and on fairness and consideration of all parties’ interest.]
2. Any system of global security [is] destroyed. The future is not guaranteed. And this destroyer is, as they say, first name and patronymic. [All current systems of global security are in ruins, there are no more guarantees of international security, thanks to the United States of America which has trashed them.]
3. The builders of the New World Order have failed and built a castle in the sand. Build or not a joint world order to solve not only Russia, but without Russia and expense, this issue is not resolved. [The creators of the New World Order have built a house with a foundation of sand. Whether a replacement order should be built is not only Russia’s decision but any such decision to create a new system of order must include Russia’s participation.]
4. Russia favors a conservative approach to the implementation of any changes in the society and the existing elements of the order, but does not refuse to consider new products for their meaningful implementation. [Russia prefers to tread carefully where fools would rush in, in introducing social change but would be happy to discuss and test such change first where justified.]
5. Russia is not going to fish in the troubled waters of chaos, is not going to build a new empire (we just do not need it, we would have his master), but is not going to save the world and at the expense of himself, as has happened before. [Russia has enough territory to satisfy its imperial ambitions if any, Russia is not interested in building empires and certainly will not be the world’s policeman at its own cost.]
6. Russia is not going to reformat the world for themselves, but do not give reformat themselves to please someone else. We’re not going to close the world, but woe to those who try us “close”. [Russia is uninterested in reshaping the world to its preference and will not allow anyone to reshape Russian territory and society according to their interests. Russia will not be isolationist and will not tolerate being shut off from the rest of the world.]
7. Russia does not want the onset of chaos, not seeking war and it is not going to start first. Nevertheless, today Russia is considering the prospect of a global war almost as inevitable, is ready for this and continues to prepare.Russia does not want war, but not afraid.
8. Russia is not going to take a proactive stance in opposing the mountain – the builders of the NWO as long as it does not concern her vital interests, preferring to give them the opportunity to stuff as many cones as sustain their head. When violent Russian involvement in this process, at the expense of its interests, little nobody seems. [Russia won’t object to those still pursuing their dreams of a New World Order as long as they don’t impinge on Russia’s interests; Russia is happy to let those countries whack themselves silly but if they try to drag Russia into their schemes, then they will really know what it’s like to be whacked!]
9. In its foreign and domestic policy the more power Russia will increasingly rely not on the elite and backroom deals, and the will of the people. [Russia will follow foreign and domestic policies aligned with what the Russian people desire or prefer as opposed to backroom horse-trading deals.]
The Q&A Session
(Originally when I wrote this essay, only a small early part of the Q&A session had been fully translated or retranslated from a Russian translation into English. As the whole Q&A session is now available in English, and is lengthy to boot, I will write a second essay covering the questions and Putin’s responses.)
Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people including questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.
Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.
The rest of the Q&A session will be covered in Part 2 of this essay.
That Russia seems content to be only a regional power in its sphere of influence may disappoint those people who want to see a new world power leading a coalition of nations pulverise the United States and its allies. But such a scenario would be a repeat of old Cold War fantasies and would certainly play into the US government’s own desires of provoking Russia into war. From the experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Russia is well aware of the pitfalls of travelling down that path again and how among other things the arms build-up and race against the US which the war in Afghanistan entailed weakened the USSR and distorted its economic decision-making and priorities. Also there would be no guarantee that a rerun of the Cold War would not come to corrupt Russia’s decision-makers and its economic elites in the way the Cold War corrupted the US the first time. The Russian strategy means that the US and its fellow head-bangers will continue to bash themselves silly (and waste taxpayers’ money) with trying to stir up conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East and other arenas, only to see these conflicts fizzle out to their own disadvantage.
It might seem extraordinary that for the first time since 1945 a major power is content to remain within its own region and not take active steps to ensure that peace and stability in places beyond its immediate neighbourhood endure. This scenario is one that might strike Americans who know their country’s history well as being similar to the isolationist policy that the US tried to follow after World War I, to the extent of spurning membership of the League of Nations. The fact that the most powerful nation in the world in the 1920s and 30s turned its back on the rest of the world may have encouraged countries like Germany, Italy and Japan to pursue their ambitions and embark on empire-building; if the US did not support the League, then those other countries also would not support it. Isolationism as a nation’s foreign policy then failed to prevent instability and the drift towards another major world war. But this is not to suggest that Russia will follow isolationism in the same way that the US did; Russia may very well follow a selective isolationism in which the country will concern itself mostly with issues in the Eurasian region but will retain membership of the UN or its successor organisation, and might intervene in situations far beyond Eurasia if requested to do so as a third party mediator perhaps under UN or similar auspices.
What I think is most likely at this point is that Russia will refuse to be at the beck and call of every insecure small nation or group of such nations (like, say, the so-called Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; or the Vyšehrad nations Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) to intervene militarily in every problem that these countries perceive as threatening to them (whether they actually are or not) and to turn its armed forces into a mercenary global police force for hire, as the US has done over the past 60+ years. Whether in the long run that turns out to be a good thing or not, or the right path or not, we cannot judge from our vantage point in which most major global issues and conflicts have become extremely polarised politically.
What Putin has done is to signal the end of an age in which ideology and abstract concepts determine inter-relationships among nations and whether some nations should be judged “good” and others “bad” by selectively applied criteria from particular mishmashes of ideologies held by dominant partners. Instead his speech heralds an age in which nations greet one another at face value and co-operate as partners on pressing global issues, finding common cause and working together on agreed principles to resolve problems. It is time to approach and tackle problems as they are on their own merits and to find the most appropriate solutions based on the nature of the problem and the context at hand, and whether they will benefit most of those people who might be affected by the problem, not on whether it adheres to a narrowly interpreted abstract ideal. Pragmatism and policies based on fairness, justice and accountability should govern nations’ relationships with one another.
Disappointingly but not surprisingly, Putin’s speech was either not broadcast on mainstream news media in the Anglosphere or was cherry-picked over for comments he made that would back the Western propaganda narrative of Putin as a dictator and tyrant whose removal from the global scene is now due. Anyone reading who has not yet viewed the speech can watch it on Youtube by clicking this link; the Q&A session follows as well. An English-language transcript of the entire session can be read here.