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Putin’s Valdai Club speech as a reflection of Russian if-only-ism


The Russian media evaluated Putin’s speech delivered to the Valdai International Discussion Club as “the first expanded exposition of his foreign policy philosophy since the time of his famous speech in Munich in 2007.”[1]  The Western media saw it as merely as “a desultory speech directed at the USA.” The nationalist-patriots in the person of analyst Irina Volynets evaluated the speech thusly: it got responses from “the planet’s leading media,” and it “caused a real furore in the international community and pride in all patriots of Russia” (Zavtra, 27.10.2014). This “analyst” from “the planet’s leading media” only pointed out the newspaper Financial Times and forgot for some reason to mention any newspapers of the USA, Japan, China, Africa, Latin America, South or South-East Asia. Evidently, in this analyst’s eyes one English newspaper amounts to the whole planet. There is nothing surprising in this, since it seems to very many Russians that the entire planet revolves around Russia and its problems.

Nonetheless, the speech did indeed gladden the patriots and, naturally, sadden the liberals. I think that the former shouldn’t delude themselves, and the latter need not be sad, since its impact on the real course of events will be just as nil as that of the “famous” Munich speech. It is another matter that by this speech one can judge the Russian leaders’ mindset, their notions of the world and of themselves. It is from this position that I will attempt to comment on Mr. Putin’s Valdai Club speech.

*   *   *

The Valdai speech can be perceived as the theoretical foundation of Russia’s actual foreign policy and as the Russian President’s understanding of his country’s role and place in the world. It demonstrated yet again that neither Putin nor his whole team taking part in the development of foreign policy decisions realize their country’s place in the world. This philosophy is practically no different from the philosophy of the times of the USSR which was one of the main causes of the great country’s collapse. Since the President himself said that “We need to be direct and blunt, I shall follow his advice and try to explain how wrong his philosophy is, and “what is actually happening in the world.

The very name of the session’s topic: «The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules» is formulated categorically incorrectly in principle, which speaks of the discussion club’s organizer’s knowledge level.

Firstly, there is no “world order.” The President and the other members of the club kept talking of chaos, anarchy and other turbulence in the world arena. Secondly, world relations develop in accordance with laws, not “rules.” Those who don’t know these laws and put their trust in some kind of “rules” don’t understand that rules can change constantly, while laws do not change. Rules are subjective, laws are objective. Clearly, neither the President nor his team know the fundamentals of the theory of international relations.

The President declared more than once in his speech that “a change of the world order” is currently underway. It isn’t the “order,” but the structure of international relations that can change. Certain powers ruled; then others came to rule. But there is no change taking place in today’s situation: the structure preserves its unipolarity and a sole center of power. The President himself confirms this with his indication that the European countries are forced to submit to the USA, in particular on the issues concerning Ukraine.


The President decided for some reason that

Global politics is above all about economic leadership, issues of war and peace, and the humanitarian dimension, including human rights.

Since when has “economic leadership” become a global policy goal? Is it really this goal that is built into the foreign policy of Sweden, the Netherlands and about 200 other states? Only those countries are prone to striving toward “economic leadership” which aspire to the status of great powers or superpowers. Those countries which manage without such status ignore not only “economic leadership” but also humanitarian spheres, let alone “human rights.” And while issues of war and peace do indeed concern many countries, most of them are not concerned them “above all.” Ask the leaders of Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific basin countries whether that topic is important to them.


And here is an even stranger statement. Speaking of the mechanism for maintaining “the world order” after the Second World War, the President said the following:

Let me stress that the solidity of the system created back then rested not only on the balance of power and the rights of the victor countries, but on the fact that this system’s ‘founding fathers’ had respect for each other, did not try to put the squeeze on others, but attempted to reach agreements.

In the President’s opinion, “respect for each other” was one of the pillars holding up “the world order” after the Second World War, i.e. during the Cold War period which saw numerous military conflicts - in Korea, in Vietnam, smaller armed clashes in Africa [2]. It was during this period that the Caribbean crisis took place, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. “Attempts to reach agreements” resulted in the defeat of the USSR whose economy failed under pressure from the West, led by the USA. And Mr. Putin calls that period’s “world order” a “solid system”? This “philosophy” is clearly at odds with reality.


Putin says, as if sarcastically, that the United States declared itself the winner in the Cold War. Well, isn’t the USA the winner in that war? Did perhaps the Soviet Union win that war? If it did win, where is it now?

This kind of “logic” inevitably leads to judgments like the following assertion by the President:

Instead of establishing a new balance of power, essential for maintaining order and stability, they took steps that threw the system into sharp and deep imbalance (emphasis mine. – A.B.).

This begs the question: whatever for would the Americans need a new balance of powers if their victory made them the sole superpower? The implication is that Washington should have deliberately reduced its economic and military potential in order to make it equal to someone else’s. Whose? Putin didn’t say with whom “a new balance of power” should have been established. Let’s assume that it’s Russia. But even if Washington desired to establish a new balance of power with Russia, how could it possibly have done it when Russia’s economic potential declined nearly by half after the Cold War - and it is on this potential’s foundation that all other components of the “balance of power” are grown?

This is one side of the question; there is also a deeper side. Balance is equilibrium. Any equilibrium is absence of motion. According to the law of entropy growth, any equilibrium is maximum entropy, i.e. equilibrium is death. In the maximum entropy zone a system lacks the ability to perform work, that is, transfer useful energy from one place to another – in other words, to generate order. This is why a balance of power cannot exist for a long time (in reality it never did exist); it is a momentary state which becomes violated immediately. However, this is also precisely why the system develops. To sing praises of the balance of power means to be ignorant of the basics of international relations science.

Putin kept stressing that a “balance of interests” is necessary. Gorbachev in his time also spoke of such a balance, within the framework of the so-called “new political thinking.” He didn’t understand that a “balance of interests” between blocks belonging to different socio-economic formations is not possible in principle. It is likewise impossible within a formation due to the different geostrategic and geo-economic interests, if only because the interests of great powers cannot coincide with the interests of small and medium countries; the American theorist Kenneth Waltz wrote of this convincingly in his time. These are illusions along the lines of the cartoon cat’s appeal “Let’s live in peace, kids!” Even within the framework of alliances, countries’ interests can never fully coincide due to a multitude of reasons, primarily due to the states’ different might. The law of capitalism’s uneven development makes “balance of interests” an illusion; hence the constant contradictions which lead either to military conflicts/wars or to unending trade wars.


Putin says that the USA made use of its victory in the Cold War and “had decided to pressure events and reshape the world to suit their own needs and interests”. Is there any limit to his naiveté? The USA should have reshaped the world to suit whose interests? Those of Russia, or those of China, or those of the Munduruku tribe? It is only natural that every country takes care of its own interests above all. Can it be that even this is unclear to Putin’s speechwriters? Evidently so, since Putin goes on to develop this thought:

Pardon the analogy, but this is the way nouveaux riches behave when they suddenly end up with a great fortune, in this case, in the shape of world leadership and domination. Instead of managing their wealth wisely, for their own benefit too of course, I think they have committed many follies.

The comparison to nouveaux riches is absolutely not correct. Fortunes did fall from the sky to the Russian nouveaux riches who became billionaires overnight. Americans accumulated their wealth over the course of many years, and this robbing the rest of the world. In order to rob they expended colossal resources of their own, and in accordance with the laws of capitalism they pursued so-called profits. And what exactly does he mean by “managing their wealth wisely”? Give away part of the stolen wealth to Russians or to someone else? It was not Americans but precisely the Russian nouveaux riches that “committed many follies” as they proved incapable of creating fortunes and simply stole them instead.


Doesn’t this phrase sound childish:

Objectivity and justice have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

In what world are you living, Mr. President? Political expediency IS objectivity, since any kind of policy must strive toward expediency, whether economic or foreign. And where exactly can one see justice in the capitalist system? Clearly the President doesn’t know the laws of capitalism. Effectiveness, and therefore expediency, of economic policy in the capitalist system means that the poor become poorer, and the rich richer. This law is talked about several times in the famous textbook Economics, written by the Nobel Prize winner Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus; students use it in many countries, including Russia. Make your speechwriters read this textbook, Mr. President, so that they don’t write illiterate texts for you.


And here is a very telling failure to understand the concept of sovereignty. In connection with the United States forcing “their own recipes” on others, Mr. Putin declares:

The very notion of ‘national sovereignty’ became a relative value for most countries. In essence, what was being proposed was the formula: the greater the loyalty towards the world’s sole power center, the greater this or that ruling regime’s legitimacy.

A bit later he proposes:

let someone try to disprove the argument that I just set out.

This “thesis” has been dwelt on in dozens of Soviet-era books which justly pointed out that powerful capitalist countries constantly violated the sovereignty of all their weak adversaries, and to them that was the norm, not anomalous behavior. Sovereignty is not a “quantity,” not a sack of potatoes; it is a concept which is defined as the state’s ability to conduct independent policy in accordance with its own interests. This ability as such is determined by the state’s power (its military-economic might). It is only the latter that can become a “quantity” which can be used to evaluate the actual sovereignty of this or that state. And it is perfectly natural that every weak state is forced to exhibit “loyalty” to the sole center of influence, since, Mr. President, they function in the capitalist system, not in the socialist one which functions according to other principles and laws of international relations. This simple thesis has been affirmed by practice since the times of the Peace of Westphalia, and it foolish to refute it.

Failure to understand the essence of sovereignty leads Putin to the following conclusion:

The issue of maintaining sovereignty becomes almost paramount in maintaining and strengthening global stability.

The President doesn’t understand that today, in conditions of interdependence, the concept of sovereignty loses its meaning even without the great powers and without the USA, since interaction between countries means that they inevitably lose sovereignty in this or that link of their foreign policy. Sovereignty is a historical concept. In the future it will disappear from our lexicon altogether, and to make it into the “paramount issue” of global stability means to exhibit total incomprehension of historical realities.

Many politicians, including Russian ones, appeal tirelessly to international law. Don’t Putin and the others understand that international law is written by the winning powers - usually the great powers - to suit themselves. All these big words like “justice,” “morals,” “equal rights,” “respect for the partner” come from the lexicon of socialist foreign policy. In capitalist foreign policy they can only be used to conceal the real goals which are ultimately directed at making excess profits. Chatter about “respect for the partner and his interests” which is supposedly “capable of fundamentally changing the situation in the world” amounts to hot air, nothing more. Politicians have been blabbering about this since the Peace of Westphalia, but nothing changed. I repeat: this is capitalism for you.


In connection with US surveillance throughout the world Putin exclaims:

Let’s ask ourselves, how comfortable are we with this, how safe are we, how happy living in this world, and how fair and rational has it become?


As for “comfort,” most countries in the world show no concern about it; only several fidgeted, so the word “everyone” is out of place here.

And should we talk of “fairness and rationality,” the irrational ones are above all Russia and Russians who are incapable of evaluating objectively their own place in the world. The most telling manifestation of this irrationality is the indicator of average life expectancy (ALE) – an aggregate indicator which ranks Russia 151st in the world. History knows no other country which managed in a very short historical period to tumble from the pedestal of the world’s second superpower to the level of a regional power at best, beset on top of that with a multitude of problems which doom it to further degradation.

As for “justice” in the international arena – Soviet leaders could talk about it, but not the leader of a capitalist state who is unable to establish justice even in his own country.

The President touched on a really important topic when he started talking that the USA and its allies had begun to directly fund and arm extremists. This is indeed true. It is seemingly obvious that should sales/supplies of weapons cease, the greater part of military conflicts in the world will fizzle out. Putin asks indignantly:

Let me ask where do these rebels get their money, arms and military specialists? Where does all this come from? How did the notorious ISIL manage to become such a powerful group, essentially a real armed force?


Let me answer, Mr. President: it comes not only from the USA and its allies, but also from Russia. (In 2013 Russia exported $15.6 billion worth of weapons and military equipment.)You’re constantly bragging that Russia is second in arms sales in the world behind the USA. It is another matter that the USA sells arms to its own “sons of bitches,” or “satellites” in the President’s parlance, while Russia sells arms to its own ones. Supplies and sales of arms by the United States and Russia are one of the most important factors enabling terrorism to flourish in the world. Doesn’t this simple truth occur to Mr. Putin?

Speaking of the disastrous role of unipolarity in the world which does not lead to increased manageability of global processes, Putin laments:

This kind of unstable construction has shown its inability to fight the real threats such as regional conflicts, terrorism, drug trafficking, religious fanaticism, chauvinism and neo-Nazism.


If it weren’t for the word unipolarity used in the context of this phrase, I would have thought that Putin describes the situation in Russia. Everything he mentioned here flourishes in Russia. His complaint about “manipulation of popular opinion” rings especially funny. He should be talking! It is precisely in Russia that the mechanism of manipulation has been perfected. The people there, poisoned by television, have lost the ability to think.

The reasoning about unipolarity reminds me of the writings by Soviet international relations experts of forty years ago; those people never managed to figure out what is a pole and what is a center of power. They failed in that time (as current “experts” still fail today) to understand that “polarity” is not something artificial, created by someone’s will. It is the natural course of historical and international events when in a certain stretch of historical time one or another world power surges ahead of others (for example, Great Britain in the middle of the 19th century) and becomes a “pole.” A regularity is observed in the theory of multi-polarity: unipolarity is replaced by multipolarity, the latter is replaced by bipolarity, and then the cycle starts anew. At least this is how it was in the last two hundred years.

Putin got the impression that someone came up with an attempt to recreate at a new historical stage some semblance of a quasi-bipolar world, a quasi-bipolar system as a convenient system of leadership reproduction – reproduction of American leadership in this case. Why advised this nonsense to him? How can one recreate a bipolar world artificially? This is an utter “collapse” of thinking! Putin goes on to indicate in all seriousness the possible candidates to be “partners” of the USA: Iran, China and Russia. This means that neither Putin nor his speechwriters understand the meaning of “polarity.” Polarity is an economic category determined by the country’s economic might exceeding that of its neighbors by a factor of at least two. Iran and Russia simply don’t fit this definition. Due to their economic weakness they aren’t even regional poles, let alone world poles. Naming China as an example, Putin remarked that it is “the number one economy in the world.” Naturally, he meant GDP calculated using purchasing power parity (PPP). The president simply doesn’t understand that GDP is calculated based on a consumer basket which can be used to judge the population’s level of well-being - but certainly not the country’s economic potential, which is reflected by GDP measured using the current exchange rates. Putin doesn’t understand that even GDP itself has ceased to determine the country’s economic might, since it doesn’t reflect the economy’s quality. The economy’s quality is evaluated according to its research intensity, not production of pig iron and steel.  

Thus pole is a geo-economic category, whereas center of power is a geostrategic category which depends on the size of the foreign policy potential (FPP), not just on the presence of nuclear might. In this respect Russia, whose FPP is smaller than that of the USA by an order of magnitude, cannot aspire to the status of a “center,” even a “quasi” one. In other words, talk about polarity/multipolarity/polycentricity is childish babble characteristic of journalists and illiterate politicians.

Putin kept pedaling the topic of “politics being recklessly mixed with economics.” Evidently the President never studied Lenin’s works on the topic, let alone those of Marx. He is clearly unaware that politics and the economy are interrelated in the closest way, that policy ultimately services precisely economic interests, since the ultimate goal of any country’s foreign policy is to secure its economic interests; diplomacy and arms are merely tools in the realization of these goals. He says:

You cannot mix politics and the economy, but this is what is happening now.

Let him try to separate economic policy from political economy! Putin never learned to think conceptually, otherwise he would understand that in the process of motion paired phenomena (evil-good, white-black, politics-economy, etc.) can exchange their essences. In philosophical terms this is called mutual reversibility of concepts.


And here is how the President handles terminology. Despite his anti-Americanism, he managed to make use of the term soft power which was introduced by the American Joseph S. Nye, and of the term human capital invented by other Americans -Theodore Schultz, Gary Becker and Jacob Mincer – in order to conceal the exploitation of man under capitalism. What’s up with that? Are you parroting Americans again? And you’re telling us that Americans are not bearers of progress!


His sighs and groans about “world anarchy” which will “increase” are comical. People have been writing about “increasing” anarchy for at least a hundred years; almost all representatives of the political realism school claim that it is a constant phenomenon in world relations. In reality both they and Putin are wrong. There is no world anarchy. All states function in accordance with laws, first of all the law of power. A strong state pressures a weak state; the weak state either submits of disappears from the world arena. This happened hundreds of times in history; the latest historical example is the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no anarchy at all – only, power, more power and once again, power. It is precisely the representatives of weak states who keep talking about “anarchy”; it is they who usually start appealing to justice, morals, consciousness and other nonsense which has nothing to do within international relations – within the capitalist system, I stress.


Russians try to insult the USA by calling it “the world’s imperialist gendarme.” They have no inkling that to very many people – including, by the way, American theorists of international relations – this is no insult but rather balm for the heart, praise for American imperialism which brings “markets and democracy,” as well as progress, to the entire world – including Russia, which built its capitalist economy based specifically on the Chicago school’s theories. And wasn’t it Americans who brought progress to Russia? Russians make full use of their technologies: the Internet, mobile phones, etc. All of television there is American. And even the Americans’ language, as represented by the so-called “anglospeak,” is strongly displacing Russian words. So Putin has no business quipping about the USA supposedly bringing “progress.”


A here is a passage that reflects the Russian President’s political face. While answering questions he stressed twice:

Revolutions are bad. We have had more than enough of those revolutions in the 20th century. What we need is evolution. I am certain that we can move forward by following that path.

Firstly, it is unclear: who are the “we”? Secondly, he apparently forgot – if he ever knew, that is – that it was precisely after the October revolution that Russia turned from a backward and illiterate country into the world’s number two power, and for many years determined the vector of mankind’s development. Evidently he didn’t study history; otherwise he would have learned that almost all great powers which determined the structure of international relations went through revolutions. Clearly he doesn’t understand that any phenomenon continues its development through leaps; leaps in development of society have the form of revolutions. This is Hegel’s second universal law: the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes by way of a leap. When there is no leap, there is no subsequent evolution. Currently the country is crawling along the evolutionary path. Where is it headed? To the Middle Ages, that’s where.


I leave out other topics voiced by the Russian president, in particular his pronouncement about the Eurasian Economic Union, which it is supposedly necessary to join to the European Union in order to build an economic space stretching all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It is strange that Putin didn’t propose in this connection to join this “union” to the Great Silk Way as well, and to NAFTA in the bargain. Then the whole globe would be “covered” for sure, and the Moon would be a stone’s throw away. Other no less if-only-ist “initiatives” were put forward; I suggest that Russian experts write utopian novels about them rather than analytical articles.


It makes sense, however, to draw the readers’ attention to this University of Leningrad graduate’s type of thinking. Here is how Putin understands his opponent’s words. The American Trister Gati said when asking him a question: «Several weeks back, Mr. Obama spoke of three challenges: Ebola, the Islamic State, and Russia, the Russian Federation, because of the events in Ukraine (emphasis mine. – A.B.)».

Putin replied:

President Obama, as you said, views Russia as a threat. I do not think that the United States is a threat to us (emphasis mine. – A.B.).

This is how Russians change the topic’s content (quite frequently, too). Gati speaks of “challenges”; Putin speaks of a “threat.”  Challenge and threat are words from the lexicon of international relations; they have different contents. Challenge is aproblem which demands a resolution; in this case it can be seen as synonymous with the word contradiction, or sometimes with the milder word concern. It is merely an ascertainment of a phenomenon. Threat (menace) is a stronger word which is followed by certain acts. In other words, Obama and Gati speak of one thing, while Putin in his reply speaks of something entirely different. How is then a dialogue of “mutual understanding” to be built? The Russians don’t hear their opponents. They ascribe their every itch to their opponents. No wonder that the aforementioned Gati declared that she doesn’t recognize her country in Putin’s speech.


Throughout Putin’s speech one traces the refrain that the world is doing badly in every way: there is chaos, anarchy, instability – all of this due to the USA’s policy, and everyone in the world is supposedly concerned about this situation. If this is true, then why doesn’t “everyone” include such major countries as Japan, India or even China? Has anyone read a speech by Xi Jinping where he describes the international situation in this way and blames the USA so directly? “Everyone” doesn’t include most of the countries of Latin America, Africa, the Pacific Ocean, Asia, East Asia. In other words, the vast majority of the world’s countries don’t see the international situation in such black tones. The Russians are convinced, though, that if something is wrong with them, then something must be wrong with everyone. They believe that the whole world lives Russia’s problems, totally unsuspecting that the vast majority of countries in this world have a very vague notion of the country called Russia.

Putin’s speech reminds speeches by Soviet leaders who tried to impose on the capitalist world the socialist standards and socialist rules of conduct in the world arena. Putin, being the head of a capitalist country, tries to impose Soviet standards on capitalist countries which live according to other laws – the laws of capitalism which were reproduced above.

It is clear that Putin doesn’t know these laws; neither do Russian international relations experts, including his speechwriters. Judging by foreign experts’ speeches, they are often likewise ignorant of these laws; this happens in history. However, ignorance of these laws doesn’t mean that they don’t work. They work just like the laws of physics, regardless of whether anyone knows them or not. Their effectiveness is confirmed by practice which will demonstrate inevitably that everything Putin spoke of and everything he proposed will not come to pass - same as his wishes proclaimed in the Munich speech.


Alex Battler

31 December 2014

[1] The final plenary meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club’s XI session (24 October 2014). – Website of the President of Russia //http://www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/46860


[2] According to the English theorists Booth and Smith, 20 million people were killed in wars after World War II. See: Booth K., Smith S. (eds.) International Relations Today. UK: Polity Press, 1997, p. 334.