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Igor Ivanov

President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004)

President Putin’s speech at the recent Valdai Club meeting in Sochi evoked a strong, and somewhat contradictory, reaction from both Russian and foreign observers. It was an extremely frank speech that touched upon a wide range of issues. Everyone who listened to the speech and the subsequent Q&A session seemed to hear only what they wanted to hear.

President Putin’s speech at the recent Valdai Club meeting in Sochi evoked a strong, and somewhat contradictory, reaction from both Russian and foreign observers. It was an extremely frank speech that touched upon a wide range of issues. Everyone who listened to the speech and the subsequent Q&A session seemed to hear only what they wanted to hear.

Some observers concluded that the Russian leader had lost all hope of re-establishing any kind of a dialogue with the West, while others scanned the President’s words for signs that the country’s stance towards the West had softened – “signals” that he was willing to resume dialogue and reach compromises on a broad range of issues.

I happened to be one of the participants at that meeting in Sochi, and I’d like to offer my own no less subjective and controversial interpretation of the speech given there by the President of the Russian Federation.

Many analysts today tend to compare Putin’s speech in Sochi to the famous “Munich Speech” he gave back in 2007 at the 43rd Munich Security Conference. It was here that the Russian leader for the first time publicly offered a detailed and harsh appraisal of U.S. attempts to adopt a unipolar model of the world as the basis for international relations in the 21st century. His words about the dangerous consequences of disregarding the fundamental principles of international law, relying on force alone to solve regional problems, and attempting to impose the narrow interests of the United States on other countries and peoples surprised many. The central argument of Putin’s Munich Speech was clear and unambiguous: It is high time to start thinking about the creation of a new global security architecture, and a new world order in general.

For some, Putin’s Munich Speech came as a complete surprise and, I might add, an annoying and unpleasant one. But his dismay and disappointment with the West was completely understandable in the context of the events that led up to the speech.

As a person who has long been involved in the development and implementation of Russia’s foreign policy, I remember very well the incredible effort that it took to open a new page in our relations with the United States and other leading Western states following the end of the Cold War. After 9/11, Russia was the first country to extend a hand of solidarity to the American people.

In May 2002, President Putin and Western leaders signed a declaration on the establishment of the NATO–Russia Council with the hope of eventually forming a unified and indivisible security system in the entire Euro-Atlantic space. In May 2013, the leaders of Russia and the European Union signed an agreement on the creation of common spaces, including economic spaces, with a view to eventually erase the dividing lines in Europe. The list of concrete, yet far from easy and obvious, steps taken by Russia towards constructive cooperation with the West does not stop there.

The reaction of our Western partners to Russian initiatives is well known, and not only to historians, but also to all who keep a keen eye on international events. The unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the unwarranted and wholly unjustified NATO expansion and its drawing ever closer to the Russian borders; the war in Iraq in circumvention of the UN Security Council; the provocation and support of the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet countries; the way it has continued to ignore the fundamental principles of international law. Unfortunately, this rather depressing list can be continued as well as the list of Russia’s steps towards the West.

In a sense, the Sochi Speech is similar to that of Munich. In it, the President shows the very same concern for the future of the planet, the very same disappointment with our Western partners. But to call Vladimir Putin’s speech in Sochi “Munich 2” would be an oversimplification – after all, seven-and-a-half years have passed since then. We live in a completely different world now. A number of trends that only started to appear in 2007 are now visible and manifest. A wide range of social issues that were previously discussed exclusively by experts and civil activists have in recent years quite literally become part of our everyday lives. International institutions and mechanisms that were the source of great in the middle of the last decade have proven themselves to be worthless in the face of real crises.

Let us not forget that after the Munich Speech the world fell into the deep financial crisis, and a number of the negative consequences can still be felt today. The Arab Spring began at that time and still continues. And its long-term impact on the Middle East – and the world as a whole – is almost impossible to predict. The tragic events in and around Ukraine over the past year have served as reminder that any country can slip into a massive armed conflict and be transformed into a “failed state”, even in 21st-century Europe. Drawn-out political and financial turmoil in the European Union have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the “European project”, which until very recently had all the appearances of being successful and practically irreversible. The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus has reminded us that global upheavals and catastrophes do not exclusively exist in the vivid imagination of writers and Hollywood directors.

What use have our Western partners made of the last seven years? There was a time when the new Democratic administration under President Obama seemed share to a certain degree Russia’s concerns about the state of world politics and the prospects for its development. Statements about the benefits of multilateral action over unilateral approaches, political solutions over military ones, the need to take the interests of its partners into account, etc., could be heard coming out of Washington. Both sides worked together to “reset” relations between Moscow and Washington, sign a new treaty on strategic arms reduction and even move towards reaching a compromise on the delicate topic of the European missile defence system.

But it turns out that the shift of U.S. politics was tactical, rather than strategic. The inertia of old habits and approaches once again started to prevail among the American political elite. I do not want to go into details here, but Washington’s approaches to such varied crises as the events in Libya, Syria and Ukraine make it clear that the White is not going to abandon its unilateral approach together with its recourse to military action, and will continue to fly in the face of international legal norms. And all this despite the fact that the United States’ ability to control the system of international relations is declining steadily.

It is well-known that it is very difficult to keep a mental balance when a person’s desires move ever further from his capabilities. But when this happens to the leading power of the modern world, the task of maintaining controllability over the global system becomes even harder to negotiate. We have been witnessing this on the way from Munich to Sochi. The accumulation of elements of instability in various parts of the world, paralysis, stagnation, the degradation of basic international institutions for security and development, the rapid rise of political extremism and the erosion of established systems of power, the ever-narrowing space for strategic planning and strategic manoeuvres – these are just a few of the most visible manifestations of the impending chaos that will soon hit international affairs.

This, in my opinion, was the main message of Vladimir Putin’s speech in Sochi. If his Munich Speech was a kind of anamnesis of global politics at the beginning of the 21st century, then the one he gave in Sochi can be seen as its diagnosis. Unfortunately, in the years between these speeches, our partners in the West did not – or could not – take advantage of the possibilities available to them to reverse the dangerous trend towards the disintegration of the foundations of the modern world order, towards the triumph of chaos and irresponsibility in the global politics of the future. One of the victims of this short-sighted and irresponsible approach to foreign policy has been the relations between Russia and the West. It is no secret that there are people, and even entire political movements, in Russia that believe a “game without rules” with regard to international relations – the irreversible collapse of the existing world order without replacing it with a new system of norms and institutions – could somehow be beneficial for our country. They reckon that within this state of total chaos, Russia will be able to successfully manoeuvre between different global centres of power and achieve tactical success thanks to the flexibility and independence of its foreign policy. This is why the task of re-establishing the controllability of the international system in the 21st century should rest on the shoulders of the West: You destroyed the system, now rebuild it. Vladimir Putin’s speech in Sochi strongly rejects this logic. Chaos and anarchy in global politics are not in the interests of any responsible country that wants to take part in international relations. They are a breeding ground for radicals and terrorists, market speculators and international criminals. But for the overwhelming majority of people, chaos and anarchy are the source of innumerable problems, losses and tragedies of all sizes. And Russia, as one of the world’s great powers, cannot turn back its responsibility to help build a new world order, one that is just, safe and sustainable.

But who should we build this new world order with? The Russian President offered a clear and logical answer to this question: We are willing to actively cooperate with any and all countries that share our concerns about the current state of global politics, and we are prepared to work together to rebuild its controllability. This includes our neighbours in the former Soviet countries, the BRICS countries, our partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and responsible politicians from all over the world who are willing to help us tackle this historical challenge.

There is no doubt that Russia is also willing to work with the West, including the United States, without whom – or even worse, in case of their counter efforts – the construction of a new world order is practically impossible. In his speech, Vladimir Putin explicitly called for the restoration of the Russian–American dialogue, including a discussion on strategic nuclear weapons. The lack of contacts, breakdown of dialogue, and substitution of diplomacy with hostile rhetoric never did anything to solve problems between states.

I would like to hope that the hand extended by Vladimir Putin to our American partners will not be left hanging in the air. There is no guarantee that history will gift us another seven years to reverse the dangerous trends that currently dominate world politics. We cannot afford the luxury of waiting for a new president to be elected in the United States, for the economic stagnation in Europe to come to an end or for some other life-changing event to happen. Every year that we put it off, every regional crisis, and every new violation of the UN Charter make our common task much more difficult. Forming a world order for the 21st century is not something we can leave to future generations. For that generations will have their own, equally pressing, problems.

Translated from Russian. Original text

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