Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2023): looking back 20 years and looking forward to a multi-polar future

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

In his speech at the final session of the 20th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked back at the club’s debut meeting and noted that the Russian Federation was coming out of a difficult and dark 10-year period in the country’s history after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of socialist-style economic planning in favour of an economic ideology based on free market capitalism with its emphasis on privatising formerly state industries, corporations and even some government functions. The result was chaos and upheaval in the Russian economy, political corruption, the rise of wealthy multi-billionaires who began meddling in the country’s politics, and foreign (particularly US) interference in Russian politics, among other things. By 2003, with Putin having been President of Russia for a couple of years, the Russian Federation was on a more even keel politically, financially and economically, and was able to launch on a new path of rebuilding its economy, society and culture, and eager to cooperate with the rest of the world and in particular with Europe and the United States.

Unfortunately the Russians had to learn the hard way, directly and indirectly, and often through the experiences of its near neighbours like Georgia and Ukraine, that the US and Europe through the European Union and NATO were not at all interested in working with Russia to tackle and resolve various issues both regional and global. Over time the Russians had to rediscover that the so-called First World of economically developed and advanced nations intended to stay “first” by denying the rest of the world its fair share of land and resources for economic and social development, and by keeping undeveloped nations as impoverished suppliers of raw materials and cheap labour. Any country outside the First World that dared to follow its own path, especially a path of socialist or similar development, ended up being invaded and its economy destroyed, as Libya in 2011 was to discover. More recently, Ukraine was pushed onto a path of confrontation with Russia in 2014, a path leading to war with the hidden intent conceived by the West of the Ukrainians weakening Russia sufficiently that the latter’s economy and politics would be disrupted and the Russian people would supposedly spontaneously rise up and overthrow Putin and his government.

As has been his wont in past speeches at the Valdai Discussion Club meetings, Putin reiterated that the world is moving towards a situation of multi-polarity in which sovereign nations can pursue their genuine interests, customs and traditions as equals through diplomacy and negotiation. Nations respect one another’s sovereignty and no-one nation strives to be hegemon above all others in the belief that it is “exceptional”. For Putin, civilisation is a construct and concept that will vary from one country to the next, as each country will draw on its own history, traditions and ideological principles and values that have been tested through experience and in its particular physical and cultural environments. Individual nations cannot insist that their values and ideologies are universal for everyone as a way of disguising their greed and interests in stealing other nations’ land and resources.

Putin also makes mention of so-called “civilisation states” which I take to mean entities that may not necessarily be political in nature but rather may be individual nations that have distinct characteristics arising from their history or traditions, or groups of nations that have traditions and history in common, one such example being the so-called Sinosphere consisting of China and its near neighbours (Korea, Japan, Vietnam) that have been influenced by centuries of Chinese culture, history, politics and philosophy. For Putin, Russia is a similar civilisation state as it is a nation containing many diverse peoples with their own traditions and cultures, all of whom have been part of the Russian empire or the USSR in the past and who are as much heirs to Russian culture, history and traditions as the ethnic Russian people themselves. I assume that for Putin, such a state will be a dynamic entity whose final identity will be hard to pin down, because it will always be in a process of becoming, never being.

Putin concludes his speech by stating that, whatever the future may be, nations need to know what they are striving for, in order to maintain stability and have a clear direction of where they want to go. For Russia, this knowledge comes down to six principles: the desire to live in an open, interconnected world without artificial barriers of communication; the preservation of authentic diversity as the foundation for development; the freedom and right of nations to make their own decisions on issues that affect them; universal security and peace based on mutual respect; justice for all nations and peoples; and equality. Implicit in these principles is the belief that all nations, whether large or small, are one another’s political and economic equals, and none is any more special (as in being exceptional or being a chosen nation) than others.

In this speech, Putin throws down a challenge to the West and those who would follow the example of the US and Europe, that the days when the West could dominate the world economically and financially through such forums and institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are coming to an end, and all nations will be striving for peace and prosperity not only for themselves but for their neighbours as well.