Political science professor Nicolai Petro analyzes the key themes and takeaways from this year’s much talked-about Valdai Club event in Sochi, an event that was dedicated to the topic of Russia’s role in the post-Cold War world order.


Vladimir Putin speaks to political experts at a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, October 24. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev / RIA Novosti

This year’s meeting of the Valdai Club brought together many of the world’s top Russia experts to debate the changing needs of the global security system. Over a three-day period, participants discussed key issues related to Russia’s future role in this global security architecture. The final day of the event was capped off by the appearance of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who reiterated many of the same concerns that he originally mentioned in his 2007 Munich speech.

Nicolai Petro

Nicolai Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Russian affairs, just returned back from attending the Valdai event in Sochi.

In a Q&A for Russia Direct, he helps to break down the key issues and themes that emerged over the three-day period. In his extensive analysis of Putin’s Valdai speech  a speech that many Western media outlets immediately criticized as “anti-American” Nicolai Petro provides an insider’s view of how the Russian foreign policy establishment views the world.

Russia Direct: The theme of this year’s Valdai Club was “The World Order: New Rules or No Rules?” Based on what you heard in Sochi, which way do you think we’re headed?

Nicolai Petro: Many participants felt that these two assumptions led only to rather extreme outcomes. While the loss of rules leads to the danger of global anarchy, new rules presuppose some sort of coercion, which returns us to the problems of hegemony that characterize the present.

We are in this situation precisely because the current rules satisfy an ever smaller number of states, yet there is no agreement among key international actors on new rules. This results in a transition fraught with perilous uncertainties.

It was suggested during the conference that one way to make this transition safer might be to strengthen regional associations of powers. Within the framework of the United Nations they would be tasked with maintaining order and peace according to rules established by their respective communities. Vladimir Putin picked up this theme in his speech at the end of the conference.

RD: One of the highlights of this year’s Valdai Club meeting was the appearance of Vladimir Putin. What were some of the key ideas and takeaways from his talk?

N.P: Meeting the president of Russia is always the highlight of these meetings and he has used the past two meetings to explain Russia’s vision of world affairs. In 2013 he elaborated on how a more traditional Russia seeks to advance its values in the world.

In 2014 he elaborated on many of the themes raised in his speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. In fact, the headline of one of Russia’s leading newspapers the next day read: “Putin transitions from ‘Munich Speech’ to ‘Native Speech.’”

By calling Russia (along with Iran and China) a new “center of evil,” Putin says that the West is gradually “sawing off the branch it sits on.” The globalization of economics, security and politics will continue, and Russia will expand its contacts with other nations.

If some countries wish to cut themselves off from Russia, then it will be their loss. Russia will simply expand profitable relations with other countries.

Borrowing rhetoric familiar to Americans, he spoke of unipolarity as undermining the system of checks and balances that has existed since the end of the Second World War. The U.S. made a critical error, according to Putin, when it abandoned this system after the collapse of the USSR but did not have anything with which to replace it.

What arose to take its place was American hegemony increasingly suffused with a sense of America’s “exceptional” and “indispensable” historical mission. In the absence of any countervailing balance, these ideological motifs in U.S. foreign policy, which have always been present, have become dominant.

The result is a newly aggressive foreign policy that, because it does not see any other nation’s interests as constraints upon American action, now poses a direct threat to Russia’s vital national interests. This, according to Putin, is what has exacerbated the current crisis in Ukraine.

Russia, according to Putin, would like all major actors agree to restore the principle of balance of power, and to respect each other’s national interests. Only in this context can international law work and international cooperation, which Russia says it wants, be resumed.

After Putin’s speech, former French Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin commented that no one wants Ukraine to become a “frozen crisis.” Personally, I suspect that what political leaders want even less is for Ukraine to become a successful state, if that means that it is conceded to the “other side.”

The problem in Russia’s relations with the West is therefore not really one of “crisis management,” but something much, much deeper. It is the very assumption that, within European civilization itself, opposed to “our side” is “another side” which is its moral antithesis.

It is this assumption that made the Cold War a Manichean struggle, and its persistence is indispensable for future conflict. At present, we are trapped into repeating the Cold War simply because there is no cultural context in Western society for cooperation with Russia – there is no common cultural framework that would allow the West to see Russian values as their own values.

RD: In previous years, the Valdai Club was dedicated to Russia’s internal issues and problems. This year, the format seems much more globally focused, to include issues like ISIS and the Middle East. What are some of the big global issues that resonated with participants?

N.P: Three issues reverberated throughout all the sessions: sanctions, Ukraine, and the post-Cold War global order. On sanctions, most participants felt they were not likely to change Russian policy. Thus, while some argued that they “sent a message,” others questioned their purpose.

On Ukraine, there was much discussion of what was actually happening there, and debate on how much external actors could influence events there. The session on Ukraine left me, and I suspect many others, deeply pessimistic.

Finally, on the post-Cold War order, there was a general sense of fragmentation of the old, and uncertainty about what was coming to replace it.

While some participants saw each of these as discrete events, others perceived them as related to one another, and forming a pattern. If that pattern is not recognized and disrupted, I believe that this list of conflicts will grow, culminating, perhaps, in a direct military confrontation between great powers.

The Ukrainian crisis was one of the main issues discussed by Russian experts and decision-makers at Valdai. Photo: AP

RD: A general consensus at Valdai is that the system of international relations is in deep crisis. What role do you feel that Russia can play in addressing these challenges?

N.P: My sense is that Russia will offer its help in resolving crises (as it did in Syria), but that where that assistance is not wanted, it will simply work around obstacles to protect its vital national interests.

For example, although Russia has contributed significantly to European economic growth over the past fifteen years, and benefited in turn from the growth in trade, if European countries now prefer sanctions, then Russia will pursue its economic growth with other countries.

It is understood that the transition to Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American markets will be costly, but Russian official say they have no other choice. Russia must at all costs continue to grow and modernize.

In the long run, Russian officials argued, the results will be comparable because the economic weight of the West within the global economy is shrinking. Russian officials see additional difficulties in the transfer of specific technologies, but again, they have every confidence that many Asian countries (not just China) will happily entertain technological cooperation with Russia, should Europe sanctions persist.

As a direct result of these punitive measures, Russia has already diversified its global portfolio in a number of new areas, including Egypt, India, Argentina, and South Africa. Such a diversification of global investments will, they feel, allow Russia to continue to pursue an independent foreign policy, and even benefit the Russian economy in the long run.

RD: What are some of the ideas and themes that emerged from this year’s Valdai event that you hope will gain broader circulation in the mainstream Western media?

N.P: Several paradoxical ideas emerged during the course of this Valdai conference. Since I cannot mention them all, I will focus on just two – the “shrinking hegemon” and the unexpected benefits of sanctions.

While crises are usually resolved by appealing to existing rules, it is these rules that also allowed the crisis to erupt. While there is nothing particularly novel in this dialectic, it becomes more extreme during period of transition. In fact, that is how we know the world as we know it is fading into the past, because appealing to existing rules and structures is increasingly futile.

Another paradoxical piece of evidence in this regard is the hegemon’s insistence that it is crucial to settling crises, even as the number of crises proliferate and spin out of control.

This is something Putin warned of in his 2007 Munich speech. It was widely criticized in the West because it linked the reaffirmation of international law as an impartial instrument of arbitration to the curtailment of U.S. unilateralism in international affairs. If international law is perceived as a tool to establish the dominance of any one group of nations, he warned, then it will begin to lose authority. This is exactly what happened.

Secondly, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov put forward the view that, if they last long enough, Western sanctions will be an impetus for modernization.

The very worst thing that the West could do now is to lift sanctions quickly. This would have the short-term effect of telling government officials and the heads of state enterprises that they need do nothing to change, when in fact the impact of sanctions will linger for quite some time.

Russia would be caught in a more stringent liquidity crunch, as it waited for the end of sanctions to take effect, but still could not obtain credit cheaply or quickly. Shuvalov therefore concluded that, “the sooner sanctions are lifted, the worse for Russian modernization.”

He went on to list several reasons why conditions are now optimal for Russian modernization: Falling gas prices are forcing Russian producers to be more productive; sanctions are forcing Russian companies to search for new sources of international funding at a time when the emerging economies have more cash liquidity than their Western counterparts; low debt and high cash reserves means that Russian investment programs can continue without major borrowing – at most, he said, if further sanctions are imposed, Russia will delay full implementation of current programs for two years.

This year once again, he reminded us, the Russian government expects to have no budget deficit. Finally, Putin’s astonishingly high popularity means that he has a window of opportunity to push through unpopular economic reforms.

Shuvalov concluded by telling us of a discussion that Putin allegedly had with U.S. vice president Joe Biden several years ago. Apparently, Biden had just told Putin that Russia was simply too weak to compete for global leadership.

Putin replied that, while Russia might not be strong enough to compete for global leadership, Biden might reflect on the fact that Russia will still be strong enough to determine who that leader will be.

Nicolai N. Petro is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Russia and its neighboring states. He has previously served in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs in the U.S. Department of State and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and has held fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is the author of several books on Russian democratic development and foreign policy and has published in The American Interest, The New York Times, The Nation, The National Interest, The Wilson Quarterly and elsewhere. He has just returned from a year-long State Department sponsored Fulbright Research Fellowship in Ukraine. His professional web site is www.npetro.net.