Valdai Highlights: Putin’s Hard Questions on US Global Role
In contrast to some recent Valdai meetings, Russian President Vladimir Putin evinced no visible anger toward the United States or the West at this year’s gathering of academics and analysts. Instead, he exuded a quiet confidence in the foreign- and security-policy choices Russia has made in recent years, and pointed out, over and over, how the U.S. could be hurt by problems of its own making.
Chinese journalist Sheng Shilang compared Russia and China to trees in a forest who want calm, but are continuously shaken by an intimidating wind—the U.S., which now considers China and Russia “revisionist states” and has unleashed a trade war against the former and endless sanctions against the latter. Putin agreed, but added that “the weather is changeable. … [T]hose who stir up this wind, they also suffer from it.” After citing figures from the mounting U.S.-Chinese trade war, Putin concluded that it will contribute to “a future recession of the global economy. Everybody will feel it and nobody wants it to happen. Therefore, it is possible to stir up a wind at some point, but a moment will come when it will not benefit anybody.” (The metaphor wasn’t a new concept for Putin, hearkening back to his 2007 speech at the Munich Security conference, which was also about irresponsible stewardship of the international system, in that case with reference to security issues.)
As a listener, I also couldn’t help but recall that it was the United States, supposedly the hegemon of the global financial system, that nearly brought on a global depression in 2008 by the irresponsible greed of its own banking and mortgage-investment institutions. This was an extremely unpleasant wake-up call for Putin and Russian financial institutions that had exposed themselves through large-scale private-sector debt. It was the combination of this debt exposure and the collapse of the oil price in 2008-2009 that resulted in a harder hit to Russia than any other G-20 economy.
Russian economist Yaroslav Lissovolik asked Putin about the potential for de-dollarizing the global economy in response to Washington’s repeated sanctions on countries for “bad behavior”—or, from Moscow’s perspective, for implementing policies that run counter to U.S. interests. Putin returned to the theme that the United States is in the medium and longer term undermining its own global power and influence. Putin’s colorful reply is worth quoting at some length:
“As I recently said, our American friends are quarrelling with their bread and butter. They challenge the reliability of the dollar as a universal tool for international settlement [i.e., financial transactions]. Once again, this is a typical mistake for an empire.
“Why is this happening? Because—and I am not lashing out at anyone—but an empire always thinks it can make minor mistakes and allow excesses because its might makes it all irrelevant.
“But the number of these excesses and minor mistakes inevitably grows, and the time comes when this cannot be handled either from a security standpoint or from an economic standpoint. Obviously, this is the way our American friends are acting; they are devaluating confidence in the dollar as a universal settlement tool and the world’s sole reserve currency.
“And of course, everyone [has] started giving it more thought. The EU countries want to conduct trade with Iran. They do not think Iran has violated anything in its nuclear deal with the international community. And it actually has not. … [O]ur U.S. partners decided that this deal should be revised, but the Europeans disagree with that.”
Asked about the Middle East, Putin could not restrain himself from pointing out that U.S. and allied policy in Iraq and Libya resulted in much greater instability and increased terrorist threat. His remarks were especially pointed regarding Libya:
“[T]hat state ceased to exist. It is being torn to pieces between separate armed units still fighting among themselves. This is a catastrophe. Gaddafi once said Libya was an insurmountable obstacle to the movement of refugees and immigrants from Africa to Europe. He said: ‘What are you doing? You are destroying this wall.’ It’s been destroyed. That’s what is happening right now. [They’re] looking for someone to blame. But it’s [their] own fault.”
Putin discussed Syria in a very sober manner. Asked whether he believed the decision to intervene there three years ago was worth it, the president replied in the affirmative, saying that a sovereign state had been preserved and the “Somaliazation” of Syria prevented. He praised the efforts of Turkey in particular, stemming from the Russian-Turkish Sept. 17 agreement to de-escalate violence in the Idlib region, the last major stronghold of the opposition, and to seek to convince fighters to lay down their arms. He acknowledged this is an extremely difficult task; a Turkish scholar earlier in the conference had noted that about 60 percent of the fighters have disarmed to date. But myriad problems remain. First, where do the international fighters go if they disarm? No country wants them. Second, how do you manage the approximately 7 million Syrian refugees living outside Syria? Third, who pays for and manages the reconstruction of Syria?
From a Russian standpoint, U.S. positions on Syria have been unconstructive, dangerous and perhaps even immoral. The Trump administration’s demand that all Iranian military forces leave Syria before the smaller U.S. force does is nearly impossible to fulfill. When asked about Russia’s position on Iranian forces, Putin dodged by noting this will be a decision for the Iranians to make jointly with the Syrian government. He did say that Russia is working to reach a near-term agreement to keep Iranian forces away from the Golan Heights, a major concern for Israel. Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a top Russian Middle East expert, Vitaly Naumkin, all criticized the U.S. military’s defense of a Kurdish stronghold where, Putin claimed, the terrorist threat is not being effectively addressed. Interestingly, it was the moderate and intellectual Naumkin who clearly stated that the Russian position supports Syrian government control over 100 percent of Syrian territory and “it is time for the United States to leave.”
As for the immoral, the recent Trump administration announcement that the U.S. will sanction any company that is involved in reconstruction on Syrian government-controlled territory is deeply problematic. The Russian leadership believes that U.S. demands that Assad leave power (mainly by the Obama administration) have failed, catastrophically and tragically. Should we further punish the whole Syrian population for that reality?
Fans of Putin’s acerbic side weren’t disappointed: Much has been made already of his comments about Russians going to heaven while their adversaries just drop dead in the event of a nuclear confrontation. Essentially he simply confirmed Russia’s no-first use policy, but in a uniquely Putinesque manner. The president also showed visible irritation over the format of this year’s meeting, where the moderator kept reciting back to him things he had said at Valdai gatherings over the past 15 years: “I want this conversation to end,” Putin finally said. “I am flying to Tashkent this evening, and I want to play hockey before I leave.”
Overall, I left Sochi with a feeling similar to the one I had after reading Putin’s Munich speech in 2007. I may not care for the messenger, but a lot of what he says about the United States undermining its own interests, power and influence across Eurasia is on target. In 2014 Washington embarked on a policy to isolate Russia. There is no question that policy has failed, and our concern should more be about what we are doing to isolate ourselves in the genuinely multipolar world that is emerging.
The opinions in this post are solely those of the author.
Andrew C. Kuchins is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.
Photo credit: Kremlin press service.