Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Putin is maneuvering...

At the Valdai Club meeting, the Russian leader retreated. Verbally, at least
2 November, 2016 - 17:11
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

The Valdai forum is used by the Russian government to formulate and deliver urbi et orbi its ideas about the world order and Russia’s place within it. The forum has become significantly more politicized since 2014.

Although its agenda sounded neutrally this year – “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” – the current political issues dominated the event. Among foreign visitors, the most prominent ones were three former presidents: Tarja Halonen of Finland, Heinz Fischer of Austria, and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

As usual, a few days before the forum started, former chief of the Russian president’s administration Sergei Ivanov, now serving as an adviser to Putin, gave an interview to the British newspaper The Financial Times, hinting that no hot war, much less a nuclear one, will happen, but we will see a kind of verbal hot peace. “When we talk about nuclear weapons and speak about the hypothetical possibility of World War Three, I believe that everyone is smart enough not to take things to a hot war. But if we talk about cold war, information war and propaganda war, that is a fact of life. We see that every day.”

The second signal was sent, also reflecting a tradition of sorts, by editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, research director of the Valdai Club Fyodor Lukyanov in an article published by the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The long list of his positions clearly shows that often enough, he not only defines the nuances and twists of the Russian foreign policy, but launches trial balloons before policy changes as well. This time, too, his words marked the completion of a triad. “In 2014, it was about new rules or a game without rules in the international arena. In 2015, we thought about the eternal problem of politics – finding a balance between war and peace… This time, the focus is on the ‘global revolt and the global order,’ the relationship of accumulated imbalances which are worsening in the global political system as well as on the public mood in the leading countries.” It was a bid to draw a line under the recent past and start the next cycle, one centered on negotiations.

Putin’s speech at the forum and subsequent answers to questions were intended to serve precisely this purpose.

On the one hand, he accused the West of every wrongdoing possible, however the accents were placed so as to make an impression of de-escalation, the verbal one at least. “They continue to churn out threats, imaginary and mythical threats such as the ‘Russian military threat.’ The only thing is that Russia has no intention of attacking anyone. This is all quite absurd. It is unthinkable, foolish, and completely unrealistic. Europe alone has 300 million people. All of the NATO members together with the US have a total population of 600 million, probably. But Russia has only 146 million. It is simply absurd to even conceive such thoughts. And yet they use these ideas in pursuit of their political aims.”

It is also a tribute of sorts to cliches used by Soviet propaganda. The USSR always fought for peace, even when it invaded other countries. The West was always aggressive and threatened the camp of socialism around the world.

Similarly, Putin tried to suggest in that recent speech that no war was possible for reasons including a great disparity between the sides’ potentials, demographic as well as industrial, military, and financial ones. The Russian leader did not mention the latter three, but it is already common knowledge.

Of course, he also denied any interference in the election campaign in the US. “I have to ask myself and ask you too: Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia can somehow influence the American people’s choice? America is not some kind of ‘banana republic,’ after all, but is a great power. Do correct me if I am wrong.” This was clearly a gesture toward the coming administration. Putin denied any interference and declared utmost respect for the American people’s choice.

The speech also offered a condemnation of the West’s policies in general and the US’ 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in particular. The list of accusations against the so-called partners turned out to be quite long. It ranged from the desire to change the strategic balance in their favor to arming terrorist organizations. As a result, he claimed, the world was engulfed in increasing chaos that pushed people to resettle and migrate.

However, at some point the Russian president thought better of it. “Of course, we can keep exchanging caustic remarks, but I think this vicious circle must be broken. However, why are you provoking us into taking action to protect our interests?”

Referring to the stated theme of the meeting, the future world order, Putin said he did not support the creation of new international organizations, and proposed to improve the existing ones instead. First of all, it concerned the UN since the organization is “a unique venue working to coordinate all the nations’ actions while also preserving their sovereignty.” More generally, it seems that the sovereignty issue is somewhat sacred for Putin. He has always suspected and occasionally accused the West of contempt for it and the Russian interests.

The Russian president then took questions from the audience. They ranged from relations with Ukraine to the social and economic situation in Russia. Regarding the first issue, Putin said nothing new except for repeating the Kremlin’s well-known position that the Minsk Agreements have no alternative and shifting the blame for deadlock in the Donbas conflict resolution on Ukraine. No progress can be discerned on this issue, so far at least.

Putin’s speech as a whole was somewhat contradictory in nature. The tone has grown somewhat calmer, and he even demonstrated a certain detachment from the most notorious statements of Russian propaganda. In particular, it concerned the well-known phrase of TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov who had claimed that Russia was able to “turn the US to radioactive ash.” “Brandishing nuclear weapons is the last thing to do. I do not welcome it.” However, tough rhetoric was still very much present on that occasion as well.

In general, Putin’s speech indicates that the Kremlin has realized two things.

Firstly, its attempt to intimidate the West has failed. Not only has the latter refused to take fright, but it is beginning to respond with rather painful measures. The West has drawn la mince ligne rouge, the thin red line, which Russia has imprudently approached. Entering a violent conflict is just impossible, as the Kremlin lacks means and capabilities for it. That is why they are now retreating, even if only verbally.

Secondly, the Kremlin does not want to talk to the current US administration. Reduced tension suggests that it will temporize until the spring of next year. After that, they will see.