Regular readers of my periodic essays, and more especially those who have read Stepping Out of Line will have noticed that I stopped commenting on Vladimir Putin’s speeches early in 2014, whereas in the past his appearances on the world stage almost inevitably drew my close analysis.
In good part, this is due to my overarching interest in writing about what others ignore. Until very recently, the content of Putin’s speeches got scant attention in the media, both mainstream and alternative media. However, as relations between Russia and the West became very tense, as commentators of all political persuasions agreed that a new Cold War is settling in, Putin’s public speeches have been combed over for signs of what comes next. Finally, some commentators on the anti-Washington Consensus side of the aisle began analyzing his unique style of delivery as well. I think in particular of a couple of very fine essays published by Alexander Mercouris in recent weeks.
For these reasons, both finally to get out of my desk drawer my views on three major public events at which Vladimir Putin held forth since October and to enter the discussion on his inimitable style, I offer the following remarks.
The three events in question are his speech to the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on 24 October, his annual Address to the Federal Assembly on 4 December and his annual Press Conference held two weeks later, on 18 December. The content and setting of the three varied, and so did the way the President handled himself.
The most important speech in terms of conceptualizing Russian foreign policy was his appearance at Sochi. The speech was on the level of his talk to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, pushing out the frontiers of openness and explicitness in identifying forces at work in the New World Order dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union and describing how Russia intends to stand its ground and defend its interests.
The audience included a large contingent of foreign experts on Russia who are highly critical of the Kremlin, as has become traditional for the Valdai Discussion Club events. However, the real audience was not in the room. In effect, the speech was directed at Washington and at the world, if I may paraphrase the terminology of papal addresses. Catching it on the fly was not important. The written text would be parsed by think tank analysts in the following days.
Thus, it is no accident that in Sochi Putin read his speech from start to finish, barely raising his head from the pages. Those who remark how he does not use a teleprompter fail to say that when Putin reads, he reads and makes no effort to conceal that; it is a political statement in its own right.
Putin had no desire to add any last minute thoughts, to depart from what had been polished and to risk being misunderstood. Indeed, he crammed so much into the speech that if read at a normal pace he would have exceeded by far the planned time. He read perhaps 10% too fast, missing rhetorical points, stumbling from time to time in most uncharacteristic manner.
Putin also read his speech to the Federal Assembly, shuffling papers as he went along. But he spoke at a leisurely pace, taking his time to collect applause and showing no stress. His address dealt with a mixture of foreign and domestic subjects. The event was conducted like a meeting among friends.
The Press Conference stands apart precisely because after his brief introductory remarks the President responded to questions extemporaneously, without prepared notes, armed only with pad and pencil. And the context could not have been more daunting: the conference, which took place in a vast auditorium with more than 1200 foreign and domestic journalists in attendance, came the day after one of the sharpest falls in the ruble exchange rate and in the Moscow stock market since the onset of the economic crisis of 1998.
The Russian journalists in the hall were a very mixed group, ranging from the Kremlin press pool, a body of loyalists who were given the first word, to regional boosters who flock to this annual event to get in a good word for their home towns and speak about the President’s past or hoped-for future visits. It extended to determined foes of the ‘regime’ like Ksenia Sobchak, who used the microphone to denounce the Kremlin leadership at every turn. The foreign press was heavily skewed to those known for their anti-Kremlin position. Thus, journalists for the BBC and The Financial Times were able to pose hostile, at times nearly insulting questions implying the President’s culpability for the unfolding economic crisis or directly accusing Russia of military aggressiveness. Each and every question was answered with civility, clarity and, at times, humor, which was either self-deprecatory or ironic depending on the questioner.
Alexander Mercouris and other pundits have wondered aloud, who else among world leaders would dare do the same? The obvious answer is no one. To drive home the point, one need only consider the year-end press conference of Barack Obama the next day, which was allotted a fraction of the time and took place in a room with just 60 or so handpicked journalists.
The end result is that Putin came across not merely as a statesman who has mastered the issues before his nation but as a natural as opposed to synthetic politician who is manipulated by polls and by his entourage.
Let us now turn from method of delivery to content.
As I mentioned, the Valdai Discussion group speech in Sochi was one of the most important foreign policy addresses of Putin’s fifteen years at the apex of the Russian political system. It expanded directly on themes he first set out in his February 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference. But whereas the Munich speech was a recitation of stored up resentments and focused on how U.S. and Western behavior after the collapse of the Soviet Union was unfair, unreasonable in its treatment of Russia, failing to take into account its national interests, the speech at Sochi examines in detail the consequences of American unilateralism and global hegemony for the world at large.
Putin raises the question whether his and other countries should not merely sit back and let America take the lead in global management, let America bear the cost of maintaining the New World Order and enjoy the fruits of the Pax Americana. His answer is a resounding ‘no,’ as he points to the broad swathe of chaos that has resulted from American-led interventions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and to the succession of unforeseen critical challenges wherever the USA has fomented or encouraged color revolutions, most recently culminating in the Ukrainian civil war.
The speech expresses disappointment that his warnings of seven years ago went unheeded by the United States and its nominal allies, in reality vassals, who have systematically undermined international law and international organizations that stood in the way of their plans for regime change and transformation of whole regions in their own image. The result is a world convulsed by artificially induced changes, a proliferation of contradictions in the international arena which can no longer be controlled by the institutions set up after the Second World War or by the Helsinki process of the 1970s. The risk is regional hot wars if not a new global conflagration in a world without rules.
In this depressing context, the current impasse between the West and Russia over Ukraine is part of a much bigger problem, and the importance of any given elements in the crisis must not be exaggerated. The message here is one that Vladimir Putin would carry into his later appearances on 4 and 18 December: that were there no annexation of Crimea, were there no dispute over Russian support for insurgents in the Donbas, Western sanctions against Russia and the new containment policy would arise nonetheless over some other issues, real or manufactured, given Russia’s open rejection of US global hegemony as opposed to global governance under universally agreed international law with full respect for the interests and security concerns of all nation-states.
Though the speech was immediately denounced in The New York Times as yet another diatribe by the Kremlin leader, Putin in fact pointedly restated his readiness to re-engage with the West at any time if his country would be treated with respect and equality. He explicitly rejected any desire to resurrect the Soviet empire, to close Russia to the world and set out on a course of autarky, to close off options in cooperation with Western Europe while undertaking the same ‘pivot to Asia’ that other world powers were concurrently implementing in recognition of Asia’s dynamism and growing importance in the world. In short, Vladimir Putin countered every charge brought to his door by the very same New York Times and other mainstream media in the West who are his detractors.
Re-reading his well-crafted Valdai speech, I believe it is the tragedy of our times that so far no leader has emerged in the West with the intelligence and the courage to take on in public space the very serious issues raised by Vladimir Putin. Official Washington in the person of State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, or indeed in the person of President Obama himself, is offhandedly dismissive; official Europe is silent.
Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, 4 December 2014
The annual address to the Federal Assembly was delivered in the festive and historically important St George’s Hall of the Kremlin to an audience that went well beyond the two houses of the legislature which comprise the Assembly. The 1,000 in attendance include members of the federal Government, leaders of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, the governors of the constituent territorial entities of the Federation, chairmen of their legislative assemblies, heads of the official religions and spokesmen for civil society serving in advisory bodies to the local governments. In a word, the bulk of Russia’s political class was represented in the hall.
For this reason, it is not surprising that the foreign policy portion of the speech was limited to just 4 out of the 14 pages of text even if it was presented at the outset, as the context for the domestic policy which is the central matter of such an audience’s concerns. As Martin Sieff and Dmitri Trenin have pointed out, that domestic content was substantial. President Putin set out bold plans for the reindustrialization of the country based on unleashing the entrepreneurial talents of small and medium sized businesses while stepping up state intervention in priority sectors of the economy and in support of technology. He also proposed an unqualified amnesty on repatriated assets to reverse capital outflows and curtail the offshore economy.
As for the foreign policy portion of his speech, the points presented roughly correspond to what was said in Sochi to the Valdai Discussion Club, but they were organized in different order and emphasis on the component elements differed.
To be specific, Putin opened his speech with stirring patriotic remarks and nationalist overtones. The “Crimean Spring” and the peninsula’s reunification with Russia were presented as fulfillment of a sacred mission given the civilizational importance of Crimea to the Church as the place of baptism of the 9th century founder of the Russian state, St. Vladimir.
From there, the President moved on to the origins of the confrontation with the West over the fate of Ukraine. He condemned for the n-th time the coup d’etat that overthrew in February the constitutional head of state and he ridiculed the entire posture of the European powers in the run-up to those fatal events, when they spurned Russia’s offers to negotiate over the interests at risk from the Association Agreement with the EU.
Seeing that it was playing a fool’s game, Russia then acted unilaterally to defend itself and for this it was then slapped with sanctions. Here Putin made his point that sanctions would have been its fate in any case, because the real issue was the West’s intent to contain the now resurgent Russia. This was just the latest iteration of a centuries old pattern which had always failed in the past. Russia would have to stay the course.
And from this point, Putin went on to mention how from the 1990s Russia’s detractors in the West had been supporting terrorists, dubbed freedom fighters, in the hope that Russia would fragment, self-destruct following the Yugoslav scenario.
If any recent speech by Vladimir Putin might be said to be hostile to the West, it was clearly this Address to the Federal Assembly. The focus is on the malice of Russia’s opponents and on the nation’s strength and courage to stand tall and resist the worst sent its way. International law and openness to cooperation with all figure in the speech, but as minor motifs.
He surely knows his political elites, knows what they want to hear. And this provides us with proof, as if any were needed, that if Vladimir Putin were somehow removed from his leadership position, as so many in the US establishment hope, international relations would scarcely improve.
The patriotism and nationalism to which Putin appealed in this speech are not ends in themselves. They are the forces of attraction of the nation-state, the sole unit of measurement in the Westphalian system of global governance otherwise known as Realpolitik, of which Vladimir Putin is the consummate practitioner. In this speech, Putin managed to set out nearly all the working principles of Realism: competing nation-states combining and re-combining to find equilibrium in a balance of power that protects the interests of all, protects each from outside interference in their internal affairs and appraises each by its foreign policy orientation not its domestic constitutional order. In every way, this worldview is at odds with the prevailing Idealism in the USA and the European Union, where only democracies can have genuinely peaceful relations with one another, where universal values dictate foreign policy and where meddling, interference in the internal affairs of other countries is the norm. Putin used the occasion to express his contempt for those in the EU who have lost their sense of national pride. In Russia’s case, there was no such option since failure to honor its distinctiveness and centralized structure would spell dissolution and destruction.
For those who say that the present confrontation between Russia and the West cannot be a new Cold War because there are no ideological differences, this evidence to the contrary is compelling. To those who insist that we live in unprecedented times, that lessons from the past have no relevance to our modern age, the only response is: read more history and less science fiction.
Are we living in 2015 or in 1618? One may be allowed to wonder. The United States and Western Europe are filling the role of the Holy Roman Empire very nicely in their pursuit of universal values, read Catholicism. The Russians are playing the part of the Protestant states in their defense of diversity and particularism. Either we come to an agreement in which the latter principles prevail or we face thermonuclear war.
In the nature of things, the Press Conference of 18 December was more an exercise in form than in setting out new content. After all, only the brief opening remarks were wholly under the control of the President. However, in the circumstances of impending economic crisis, form became content.
Foreign commentators expressed surprise that Vladimir Putin did not outline specific measures to combat the ongoing meltdown, while stressing his confidence in his government team. Putin did not ‘talk up’ the national currency the way an American President would at a similar juncture. Instead, his exuding confidence served to calm the nerves of his compatriots, or at least of his constituency in Middle Russia. From the very start, the broad Russian public was given explicit promises on what matters to them most: that their wages and pensions were sacrosanct and would be honored in full, together with all the social obligations written into the state budget before the crisis.
Beyond that, Putin acknowledged that economic hardship was arriving, though he put a limit of two years on its likely duration. The Western press picked up at once his mention that the economic troubles came from outside, as if this were a cover story to deflect responsibility from himself and his team for mismanagement of foreign and domestic challenges. However, the President’s weighting of the decline of the ruble as being linked predominantly to the plunge in the global price of crude oil is accurate and irreproachable. Moreover, he explicitly rejected the notion that there was some conspiracy between the US and Saudi Arabia to bring down the price of oil so as to harm Russia. In a country which loves conspiracy theories, this was a highly responsible position to take and runs directly counter to the innuendo in Western reportage of the conference.
What commentators have also missed is Putin’s unusual frankness with his people on why the crisis presents an opportunity to achieve fundamental reorientation of the economy, namely a diversification that has eluded the leadership notwithstanding many fine words and plans in that direction over the past 15 years. The answer is very simple and may be succinctly put in American business folk wisdom as follows: if the watch tells time, don’t fix it. That is to say, given the high returns on investments in hydrocarbons and other primary resources since the new millennium, it was impossible to bring Russian business along on plans to invest in manufacturing industry. Putin, the free-market liberal, now was assuring his countrymen that business would respond to the new stimuli of cheap oil and gas and meet the opportunities for import replacement arising from foreign imposed sanctions and from an adverse exchange rate for importers.
The most impassioned part of his appearance at the Press Conference was precisely on foreign affairs, when he responded to a question about the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the erection of new virtual Walls by the West, something which could be traced straight back to the early 1990s in his view. Here Putin built on his narrative dating from the Munich speech of 2007. His tone was resolute, matter of fact and confident that Russia would finally be understood.
Putin used another question as a trampoline for mention of how Russia’s openness has been spurned and elicited instead a campaign of vilification, as for example in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. Then he raised the image of the Russian bear, which the West wants to tie up so as to remove its claws and teeth. This colorful allusion of course attracted US media attention. However, few bothered to follow Putin’s further explanation of how the underlying issue was Western jealousy over Russia’s immense natural wealth and expanses.
Such comments are not coming from nowhere. They are delayed responses to real statements about Russia circulating in the West. The notion that Russia is simply too big may be found in remarks attributed to Hilary Clinton a year or two ago. Putin’s mention of ‘vassals’ to describe America’s European allies is no doubt an allusion to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s typologies at the end of his 1997 work The Grand Chessboard. Similarly, Vladimir Putin’s explicit offer in his Address to the Federal Assembly to cooperate with world powers in combatting Islamic terror and overcoming infectious diseases was no doubt a delayed response to Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which he insultingly listed Russia as the third major challenge facing the international community after the Islamic State and Ebola.
Just as Putin’s Russia has pledged to respond to US military threats of Star Wars technology by unconventional means of its own choosing, so the verbal assaults on Russia by US and European leaders are neither missed nor forgotten but are factored into Russian policy. Considering this, it is high time that Western leaders, and Barack Obama in the vanguard, watch their words and start behaving like statesmen rather than firebrands.
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide.
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