Putin’s Valdai Speech, What You Need to Know

On October 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the plenary session of the Valdai International Discussion Club near Sochi, Russia. The session was attended by scholars and diplomats from forty-two countries. Putin spoke for half an hour and then answered questions for about three hours. Several interesting things were said.

In western discourse it is always said that Russia started an unprovoked war in Ukraine. There has been much discussion – though not in the mainstream media nor in statements issued by western governments – about whether the war was unprovoked. But there has been little discussion about whether Russia started it.

Putin claimed that Russia’s “special military operation” did not start the war in Ukraine but, rather, was designed to stop it. “I have said many times that it was not us who started the so-called ‘war in Ukraine,’” Putin said. “On the contrary, we are trying to end it.”

The war started, according to Putin, when the United States “orchestrated a coup in Kiev in 2014.” Putin said that the U.S. “provoked the Ukraine crisis by supporting the coup in Ukraine in 2014. They could not fail to understand that this was a red line, we have said this a thousand times. They never listened.”

After the coup, the new government in Kiev “intimidate[d]” the ethnic Russian populations of Crimea and the Donbas, prohibited them from speaking “their native language,” and threatened them “with ethnic cleansing.” It was Kiev, and not Russia, “who tried to force Donbass to obey by shelling and bombing.” The new government in Kiev bombed the region “for nine years, shooting and using tanks. That was a war, a real war unleashed against Donbass.”

The war started, not a year and a half ago, according to Putin’s chronology. Instead, “This war, the one that the regime sitting in Kiev started with the vigorous and direct support from the West, has been going on for more than nine years, and Russia’s special military operation is aimed at stopping it.”

With the end of the Cold War, there was a window of opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the previous destructive era. There was an opportunity to move from “military and ideological” blocs to collective solutions. First Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and then Russia, sought a new international order that transcended blocs. Putin even recalled “a moment when I simply suggested: perhaps we should also join NATO?”

But Putin says that Russia’s “interest in constructive interaction was misunderstood, was seen as obedience, as an agreement that the new world order would be created by those who declared themselves the winners in the Cold War. It was seen as an admission that Russia was ready to follow in others’ wake and not to be guided by our own national interests but by somebody else’s interests.”

American “arrogance” attempted to establish a global “hegemony” over a world “too complicated and diverse to be subjected to one system.” This arrogance led to two things. The first was “endless expansion” by the political West. “NATO expansion has been pursued for decades.”

Putin reminded his audience that Russia was “promised verbally” about NATO “non-expansion to the east.” He then complained, “Yes, we were promised everything verbally, and our American partners do not deny this, and then they ask: where is this documented? There is no document. And that was it, goodbye. Did we promise? It looks like we did, but it was worth nothing.”

Eventually, this broken promise led to NATO expansion creeping up to Ukraine and right up against Russia’s borders. “Among the ways the crisis in Ukraine was provoked,” Putin said, “was the irrepressible desire of Western countries, especially the United States, to expand NATO to the borders of the Russian Federation.”

“After all,” Putin pointed out, NATO “is not only a political bloc, it is a military and political bloc, and the approach of its infrastructure is fraught with a grave threat to us.” He then added, “NATO’s expansion right up to our borders is threatening our security. This is a massive challenge to the Russian Federation’s security.”

To attain its hegemonic goal, it was necessary for the United States to “to replace international law with a “rules-based order.” But unlike the international law of the charter international system that is based on the United Nations, “It is not clear what rules these are and who invented them.” In the service of Americna hegemony, the U.S. “arbitrarily set[s] these rules.”

In a recent essay, professor of international law John Dugard has said that it is neither clear what the rules of the rules-based order are nor “the method for their creation,” and has offered as a possible explanation of the rules based order that it is “international law as interpreted by the United States to accord with its national interests,” meaning whatever the U.S. needs it to mean in any given situation. He suggests that the United States tries “to impose the concept of a rules-based world order on the international community. They use this banner to promote, without any hesitation, a unipolar model of the world order where there are ‘exceptional’ countries and everyone else who must obey the ‘club of the chosen.’”

In this world order, the United States not only tells other nations how they “should behave overall” in a “colonial mentality,” but there exists “an international system where arbitrariness reigns, where all decision-making is up to those who think they are exceptional, sinless and right [and] any country can be attacked simply because it is disliked by a hegemon.”

Putin says that Russia sees a future multipolar world order in which “no one can unilaterally force or compel others to live or behave as a hegemon pleases even when it contradicts the sovereignty, genuine interests, traditions, or customs of peoples and countries.” Russia sees “civilization [as] a multifaceted concept subject to various interpretations.” The world has evolved from the “colonial interpretation whereby there was a ‘civilized world’ serving as a model for the rest, and everyone was supposed to conform to those standards. Those who disagreed were to be coerced into this ‘civilization’ by the truncheon of the ‘enlightened’ master. These times, as I said, are now in the past, and our understanding of civilisation is quite different.”

Putin argued, as he has consistently, for the principle of the indivisibility of security, the idea that security cannot be divided so that the policies that increase the security of one country decrease the security of another. Indivisibility of security assures that the security of one state should not be bought at the expense of the security of another.

The American insistence on the right of states to unrestrained free will in their choice of security alignments and the accompanying NATO open door policy to Ukraine ignores the indivisibility of security. Putin said, “The main thing is to free international relations from the bloc approach and the legacy of the colonial era and the Cold War. We have been saying for decades that security is indivisible, and that it is impossible to ensure the security of some at the expense of the security of others.”

Putin said he thinks that suggestions of “a new security system in Europe, which would include Russia, and the United States, and Canada; but not NATO, but together with everyone else: for Eastern and Central Europe… would solve many of today’s problems.”

It is often said in the West that Putin seeks to reestablish a Russian empire and reacquire vast territories, starting with Ukraine. Putin, though, says in contradiction to those claims, “The Ukraine crisis is not a territorial conflict, and I want to make that clear… [W]e have no interest in conquering additional territory.” He insisted, “This is not a territorial conflict and not an attempt to establish regional geopolitical balance. The issue is much broader and more fundamental and is about the principles underlying the new international order.”

Those principles are a balanced multipolar world, indivisibility of security, an end to blocs and to NATO encroachment and protection of ethnic Russians in the Donbass and Crimea.

During the question and answer period, political scientist Sergei Karaganov suggested that the current Russian nuclear doctrine is no longer taken seriously by the West as a deterrent. He asked whether it was not time to modify the nuclear doctrine and lower the threshold.

Often portrayed in the West as a nuclear weapons sabre rattler, Putin tamped down the question, answering, “I do not see the need to change our conceptual approaches. The potential adversary knows everything and is aware of what we are capable of.”

Putin explained Russia’s existing nuclear doctrine. He said there are two situations that could trigger a “possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia.” The first is that “the use of nuclear weapons against us…would entail a so-called retaliatory strike.” The second situation is “an existential threat to the Russian state – even if conventional weapons are used against Russia, but the very existence of Russia as a state is threatened.”

Putin insisted that Russia does not need to change its stance. In the case of the first scenario, “this response will be absolutely unacceptable for any potential aggressor, because seconds after we detect the launch of missiles… the counter strike in response will involve hundreds – hundreds of our missiles in the air, so that no enemy will have a chance to survive.” As for the second, important as an insight into how Putin evaluates the situation in Ukraine, “There is no situation imaginable today where something would threaten Russian statehood and the existence of the Russian state.”

However, Putin said that nuclear testing is “a whole different matter.” He says that, after signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the United States never ratified it. Russia, on the other hand, both signed it and ratified it. He told his audience that the development of new strategic weapons – including the nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile with “basically unlimited range” and the super heavy Sarmat missile – is “nearing completion.” He then said that Russia can “act just as the United States does” and “offer a tit-for-tat response,” suggesting that Russia could repeal the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and begin testing new weapons.

In response to the question of whether Russia objected to Ukraine joining the European Union, Putin responded that Russia had “never objected or expressed a negative attitude to Ukraine’s plans to join the European economic community – never.” He said that Russia opposes Ukraine joining NATO because NATO is a “military bloc” and a “tool of U.S. foreign policy.” But “the EU is not a military block,” and, as for “economic cooperation, or economic unions, we do not see any military threat.”

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.