On Oct. 24, Vladimir Putin delivered his annual Valdai Club speech, providing a unique peek into his geopolitical soul.
While the Russian president raised important questions concerning post-Cold War global security and the role of the United States in the world order, he did it with such an edge — if not vitriol — that all hopes of a positive reception in Washington were dashed. That was no doubt fine with the speaker.
The speech was a tsunami of attacks against America, and this was no accident. Having attended nine Valdai meetings, I was hardly surprised.
In 2007, Mr. Putin delivered a memorable Munich speech, signaling that Russia would part ways with the West. It did.
This year’s fervor was unprecedented. Russia was positioned as the victim of American perfidy. If Russia’s president wanted to be heard, accusing America of failing as a hegemon, supporting Islamist terrorism and dominating the global media was probably not the best approach. Many consider American public diplomacy to be a joke. As they say, “It is not what you say, it is how you say it.”
Mr. Putin accused America of being inept, of failing to harvest the fruits of the Cold War victory — even in its own interests — and of trampling international law. Instead, he said, the United States breeds chaos in the Middle East — from Iraq to Libya to Syria — and allows Islamist “mercenaries” to fight for the highest bidder. Somehow in all this, he conveniently forgot Russia’s diplomatic and propaganda support of Hamas and Hezbollah, both considered terrorists by the United States and the European Union.
Arming Syrian rebels who then defect to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or proclaiming a “no-fly zone” over Libya — and then bombing Moammar Gadhafi into the stone age — may be a critique worth further thought. However, Mr. Putin’s nostalgia for the Cold War balance of power and for “respect” between the “founding fathers” of the post-World War II European security system, is ignoring facts.
The Soviet Union, from Josef Stalin to Leonid Brezhnev, grabbed what it could when it could. The USSR supported Greek communists in Greece’s civil war, and self-proclaimed republics by pro-Soviet Kurds in Iraq and by Azeris in Iran. Stalin launched, together with China, the Korean War, which could have led to a World War III. Nikita Khrushchev supported Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Brezhnev won for the USSR Indochina, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique, to mention just a few.
At present, Mr. Putin is making a strategic mistake by ignoring President Obama’s desire to settle with regional powers, including Russia. Mr. Obama vastly reduced U.S. involvement in the post-Soviet space, hoping to gain Russia’s good will. Instead, Mr. Putin pocketed the concessions, and this year grabbed the Crimea and supports pro-Russian separatists. Importantly, when asked at Valdai about “Novorossiya,” the 100-plus-year-old term historic term for eastern and southern Ukraine, he pointedly ignored the questioner.
Why doth Mr. Putin protest so much? What does he really want? First, the security of his own regime, which the West deems lacking in legitimacy owing to severe irregularities in the Duma’s 2011 elections and the 2012 presidential election. To make matters worse, Mr. Putin’s circle has crafted a narrative that connects the democratic revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine with the Arab Spring. Many Russian officials, including the Russian president, think that the Internet is a brainchild of the CIA, and that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are being used to sow regime change, deposing Arab dictators one day and leading to a Ukrainian-style Maidan revolution in Moscow the next. Mr. Putin has no wish to follow in the footsteps of Gadhafi.
Second, Russia wants legitimacy for its own bloc. At Valdai, Mr. Putin stumped for a new “multipolar” world order based on an “equality of blocs.” Against NATO and the European Union, Russia wants to deploy its own Eurasian Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. However, with only $3 trillion in gross domestic product and surrounded by the likes of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russia is no match to the $34 trillion GDP of the Western bloc. To date, Mr. Putin has not gotten much diplomatic support for his global inter-bloc cooperation idea from China, India, the Arabs, the Africans or the Latin Americans.
Mr. Putin claimed that Russia is like a bear in the gigantic taiga forests, happy to sit in its corner and pump oil and gas — but unwilling to be pushed around or bothered. Yet a bear with nukes is a dangerous one, especially when it is in a bad mood.
And it is. Just ask the Ukrainians, who last fall refused to join the Eurasian Union and kicked out Mr. Putin’s corrupt crony Viktor Yanukovich. At Valdai, Mr. Putin confirmed having provided security advice for Mr. Yanukovich — and then exfiltrating him from his homeland. Just last weekend, the Ukrainians voted en masse for pro-Western parties, including those of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, rejecting the path to the Russian bear’s embrace.
Meanwhile, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe in response to Moscow’s land grab in the Crimea and its military support of separatists with soldiers and materiel, are biting. Russia’s credit ratings are just above junk bonds; Western banks are allowed to provide only 30-day loans, and the crucial supply of technology for oil and gas extraction is being curbed.
To save Russia’s economy, obtain relief from the West’s sanctions and climb down from the tree the Russian bear has gotten stuck in, it is time for Mr. Putin to take clear steps to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, and start talking to the Europeans and the Americans again.
Unfortunately, the Valdai speech indicates that for now, the bear is only grumbling and prefers to stay in its tree.
Ariel Cohen is senior fellow and director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security (iags.org).