What should we make of Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Valdai Club last week?
Headlines have tended to focus on Putin’s tough statements about the United States, and certainly there were a lot of those. Since the end of the Cold War, Putin said, the United States have circumvented the international system in pursuit of American interests. In the process, ‘they have committed many follies. … International law has been forced to retreat over and over by the onslaught of legal nihilism. Objectivity and justice have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency,’ Putin argued. America has toppled regimes, spread propaganda, and supported terrorists, he claimed, adding that ‘Essentially, the unipolar world is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries’. The result has been chaos. ‘Sometimes’, said Putin, ‘we get the impression that our colleagues and friends are constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies’.
These are harsh words indeed. I note that Putin reserved his harshest criticism for the United States, and generally spared the European Union, except in the case of Ukraine. There can be no doubt that the speech reflects the current tension between Russia and the West.
It is also rather one-sided. Just as the West blames Russia, and particularly Putin himself, for the decline in Russia-West relations, Putin places the blame entirely on the West. It would be rather better if both sides would recognize that they have each contributed something to it, and spend more time putting their own actions in order rather than criticizing one another.
That said, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Putin’s speech is not quite as negative as some are making it out to be. It was interesting, for instance, that he referred again to Western states as Russia’s ‘partners’, and that he categorically rejected the idea that Russia was turning its back on Europe in favour of Asia. ‘This is absolutely not the case’, Putin said. Furthermore, Putin ended his speech with an appeal to Russia and the West to work together to solve global problems, and argued that this could be done through existing institutions such as the United Nations, which, he said, was ‘irreplaceable’.
This then was not a call for a new Cold War. It was some way removed from speeches and articles by many in the West which have called for ‘containment’ of Russia or some other similar policy which clearly casts Russia as an enemy. However intemperate Putin’s language occasionally was it was not as hostile as a lot of that being used by Western politicians against him. It is clear that Putin is not seeking to make relations between Russia and the West even worse than they are. This, sadly, is not something which can be said about some in the West.