Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Senior Officers of the Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow (23 March 2017)
On 23 March 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech to senior officers of the Military Academy of General Staff in Moscow. Lavrov chose to focus on Russia’s role in international politics – a not surprising choice, given his position as foreign minister for such a large and varied nation as Russia is. The entire speech is not long – less than 20 minutes – but it is worth examining as it summarises how Russia has come to have the role it has and how its role fits into the new global political order of the early 21st century.
First Lavrov lays out the very specific and essential values and principles that support and influence the role the Russian state plays in international politics. One factor gives Russia a very solid foundation that most other countries can only dream about: sheer physical size that gives the country a variety of physical environments and climates, abundant natural resources and a unique location straddling and uniting both Europe and Asia. This factor is a result of Russia’s expansion across Siberia and central Asia over the centuries, resulting in many different peoples and cultures residing together, suffering together and working together to build the nation. Such experience gives Russia a unique point of view and paradigm that enable it to encourage dialogue among different nations and to form partnerships among nations, civilisations and religions in which all are considered equal.
Given Russia’s history of different peoples, faiths and societies sharing the same space under one government, we should not be surprised that Lavrov emphasises public respect for the state that encompasses all these peoples and provides them with security, stability and a share in the collective wealth they create. This respect enables the state to be strong enough to pursue domestic and foreign policies beholden to no other country. In other words, respect for and trust in a strong government go hand in hand with a secure economy (financial and productive), a cohesive if not homogeneous national culture encompassing a rich history and traditions, and the state’s ability to safeguard all of these and other elements that help to provide and enforce stability. These factors together provide what might be called “soft power” that Russia can project and model to other nations.
From here, Lavrov discusses Russia’s role in international politics, in particular the country’s role as an economic and political centre to which other countries are drawn. He notes the improvement in Russia’s military capabilities and the nation’s determination to use military power in strict compliance with its own laws and with international laws to defend its own interests and to assist other nations that call on it for help. In this, Lavrov cannot help but notice that other major nations use their military to pursue agendas that violate their own laws and international laws, and that infringe on other countries’ sovereignty and overthrow their governments with the intent to occupy their lands and drain them of their resources while the true owners are displaced, forced to serve their occupiers and to live in poverty or are scattered around the planet.
Lavrov sets considerable importance by historical traditions and trends in helping to determine Russia’s role in world politics since the nation became a major European power under Tsar Peter I (1696 – 1725) after defeating Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721. He observes that efforts on by other countries to shut out and deny Russia (or the Soviet Union) as a major power have ended badly: one might ask Napoleon I or Adolf Hitler for an opinion in this regard. Nevertheless even today Europe and the United States through the EU and NATO have sought to demonise the country and its leaders by painting Russia as a poor, developing (or deteriorating) nation or making false accusations such as invading Ukraine, forcing people in Crimea to vote for “annexation”, helping to shoot down a civilian passenger jet over Ukrainian territory or infiltrating and hacking other countries’ electronic databases for the purpose of throwing elections. In particular Russian President Vladimir Putin is portrayed as an authoritarian and corrupt despot who salts away large sums of money into offshore investment funds owned by personal associates or in expensive palaces and vineyards.
Surveying the world as it is, Lavrov sees that power is definitely shifting away from the North Atlantic region (the US and western Europe) towards the Asia-Pacific region (in particular China) and Eurasia. In addition Latin America and Africa are taking on more importance as regional power blocs in their own right. A multi-polar world that is not dominated by any one nation or power bloc is inevitable. In such a world, a nation that considers itself exceptional, not bound by the lessons of history, and believes it can force its interpretation of democracy (as a cover for its real agenda) onto others will end up bringing instability, chaos and extreme violence instead. In the long term, that nation will also become weak and become unstable. The changes that are bringing about a multi-headed international order demand that countries work together and cooperate in a spirit of mutual respect and equality, and not to compete against one another.
In this, Russia can set an example by pursuing a pragmatic and consistent foreign policy based on its experience and history as a nation of different peoples and cultures living and working together in diverse environments to achieve common goals in relationships of cooperation and mutual respect.
Lavrov’s speech is significant inasmuch as it supports speeches and interviews given by Vladimir Putin that also stress mutual respect among nations and cooperation based on common interests or desires to solve common problems. The speech also demonstrates very clearly that Russia is aware that its approach and foreign policy, even its very existence, are perceived as threats by the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. Russia is aware that the Americans are following an agenda inimical to Russian interests and to global peace and security. Pressure is on Russia then to pursue its interests and to try to uphold international laws and conventions in ways that don’t ratchet up global tensions and give the US an excuse or an outlet to cause war or create the conditions for them. Surprisingly this is not difficult for Russia to do, given that what currently passes for political leadership in the West is mediocre at best.
After the speech Lavrov took questions from his audience on issues such as global media / information and Internet governance (with respect to cyber-security, combating hacking and dealing with propaganda and false media narratives), rescuing and returning Russian prisoners of war in Syria, limiting strategic arms (nuclear and conventional), the use by the United States of staged and managed chaos across North Africa and western Asia, the split between globalist politicians acting on behalf of transnational corporations and “populist” or “nationalist” politicians claiming to represent the voice of their publics, the changing nature of war to include non-violent means of waging war (through control of the Internet and media, for example), and Russia’s interests in the Balkans. The questions show the audience’s concerns and depth of knowledge about what it considers to be the key issues facing Russia in its neighbourhood. Lavrov’s replies reveal a sharp intellect at work, tremendous historical and geopolitical knowledge and a keen interest in contemporary global affairs.
The speech and the Q&A session that follows can be viewed at The Saker. An English-language transcript follows.