OCTOBER 25 — If President Vladimir Putin is Russia, as a senior Kremlin official said this week, then this country is angry, humiliated and suffering from an almost paranoid fixation on the US as the root of all the world’s troubles.
In a closing speech and question-and-answer session today at Russia’s annual state-sponsored Valdai conference, Putin said he was going to be frank — he was more than that. He dived into a long list of slights and wounds inflicted by the US on Russia and the world since the end of the Cold War, and gave every sign of digging in for a long period of confrontation.
The US, according to Putin, is a global Big Brother that blackmails and bullies its allies while producing instability and misery around the world. Because the US realises it no longer has the ability to succeed as the lone hegemon in an age of rising powers, it is trying to recoup that status by re- creating the Cold War and producing a new enemy against which to rally countries, he said.
According to Putin’s tour of contemporary world history, aggressive US interventionism is responsible not just for the destabilization of Iraq (which it was) and Libya, but also for Syria (where the US didn’t intervene against President Bashar al-Assad) and the creation of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State. And that’s before you get to the Maidan protests and “state coup” this year in Ukraine.
As for the economic sanctions the European Union has imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Ukraine, that again was all because of pressure from the US, he said — not any action Russia might have taken.
There is plenty of truth salted through Putin’s complaints, enough to make him — as one fawning Russian state TV anchor put it in what passed for a question — “the face of resistance” for many around the world.
What is worrying is that the post 1990s narrative Putin laid out — in which the US has ignored, humiliated, encircled and isolated Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union — is one most Russians whole-heartedly believe. They, too, can’t imagine that ordinary unarmed citizens — whether in Kiev, the Arab Spring countries or elsewhere — might act of their own volition, rather than as pawns in a US game.
“What’s in his mind is what Russia is thinking. It’s like you’re mad at someone and just let it out,” said Toby Gati, a former US diplomat in the audience. Gati had told Putin she didn’t recognise the US he described, drawing a rare conciliatory comment that he wasn’t seeking confrontation.
The wellspring of popular support Putin enjoys for any potential escalation, as unwise as that would be for Russia’s long-term prosperity, allowed him to be defiant on sanctions and fatalistic on continued bloodshed in Ukraine.
Sure, Putin called for a new rule-based world order and insisted that his country had no ambitions to re-create the old empire. And no doubt he was talking, on state TV, in part to the home audience. Yet the broad thrust of his remarks was defiant, arguing that if the US gets to throw its weight around and break rules, why shouldn’t Russia? “What’s allowed for Jupiter isn’t for the bull,” Putin said. “Well, the bull may not be able to, but the bear isn’t going to ask anyone’s permission.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around for allowing the situation to get this bad, but for anyone who wants to see the Ukraine crisis solved, sanctions lifted and a repaired relationship between Russia and the US and EU, this was a dark and depressing performance that came close to a threat. — Bloomberg View
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.