Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2023) / Q&A Session

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XX Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Moscow, 5 October 2023) / Q&A Session

After his speech at the Final Plenary Session of the 20th Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club on 5 October 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin took several questions from various attendees from around the world, starting with the moderator and Valdai Discussion Club Research Director Fyodor Lukyanov who (lucky fellow!) got in first with questions about the nature of Russian civilisation, where and how it begins and ends (if it does) and questions about Ukraine and Armenia, both countries at the time involved in separate conflicts (though perhaps not quite as separate from each other as they might appear). Putin’s answers to the questions on Russian civilisation can more or less be taken to illuminate what the President meant in his earlier speech about civilisation-states. For Putin, Russian civilisation is more than the Russian Federation as a sovereign nation: Russian civilisation is where Russian-speaking people who identify with Russia and Russian culture, history and traditions live. In this definition, Russian civilisation is boundless and goes as far as individuals and groups who identify as Russian go. The definition of Russian civilisation as Russian people has consequences: for Putin, the consequences include defending Russian people wherever they live, even if they live outside Russia itself. This means defending the people of Donbass in eastern Ukraine, who have been subjected to harassment including targeted assassinations of their political and military leaders like Zakharchenko, Givi and Motorola, since 2014 and who would have had to face a full military assault from a 250,000-strong Ukrainian army in 2022 if Russia had not pre-empted that invasion in February of that year.

Putin’s responses on the Armenian situation, and to a report that Russia had betrayed Armenia, are very revealing: his responses show that Russia had advised Armenia to agree to compromises and to return five districts to Azerbaijan; and that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had already recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory back in 2022. In short, Russia has never betrayed Armenia but had asked Yerevan to respect Azerbaijani claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. If any betrayal has been committed, surely the blame should be placed before Pashinyan himself for not being honest with his people that he agreed the disputed region should return to Azerbaijan.

Putin fielded a question from political scientist Sergei Karaganov who pushed for nuclear deterrence, a policy followed by the Soviet Union for 70 years, to become Russian policy. After explaining what current Russian policy is regarding the use of nuclear weapons as purely retaliatory weapons against aggressors, especially those aggressors who threaten the very existence of Russia itself, Putin then elaborated further on proposed legislative changes to revoke Russia’s ratification of the test ban treaty on nuclear weapons.

Other questions that Putin had to bat focused on various aspects of Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and the effect the SMO has had on other governments and nations around the world. Putin commented on the incident in Canada in which Canadian politicians stood up and applauded Jaroslav Hunka, introduced to them by the Speaker of the House Commons as having fought for Ukrainian independence during World War II when the reality is that Hunka had fought as a member of the Waffen SS Galicia division within the German Army of the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces of Nazi Germany) against the Soviet Union, and as such would have had to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. As Putin noted, the incident says much about Canada’s current crop of politicians and indeed politicians in most Western nations, that they are either ignorant of recent history or simply despicable. Sometime later, Stefan Huth, a journalist for the German newspaper Junge Weit, threw a curveball by accusing Russia of being in contact with (and implicitly supporting the ideologies of) right-wing political organisations and parties in Germany. Putin responded by replying that though Moscow did indeed have contacts with parties such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany), the parties themselves cannot be held responsible for all the actions and behaviours of each and every individual member of these parties, especially in his or her own time; and moreover, one of the leaders of AfD had been the target of a recent assassination attempt and had been hospitalised as a result.

In my opinion, Putin’s response to Huth was rather lame, and he and his advisors should have done more research on the nature of the AfD to provide a better answer. Putin could have pointed out that AfD members such as Björn Höcke represent a particular faction within the party and not the whole party. Additionally, Putin could have challenged Huth on the nature of his question about Moscow’s relations with the AfD, in particular on the way he brought up Höcke’s name to insinuate that the entire party agrees with this particular member’s views and condones his associations outside the party. Incidentally the politician Tino Chrupalla, whom Huth mentioned as having had a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is the same politician who had nearly been assassinated with a syringe containing an unknown substance, and Putin might have mentioned this fact to Huth (who as a journalist surely would have known anyway but for some reason chose not to say so).

Putin answered other questions of varying import in a lengthy session that would have put Western politicians to shame with his stamina and interest in many issues, even those not directly relevant to Russian interests such as the debacle in the Canadian Parliament concerning Jaroslav Hunka. That Putin would fall down on questions such as the one Huth posed to him is to be expected, and this in itself might suggest that Putin is prepared to take on questions that he has not seen and prepared for in advance.