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Understanding Russia’s Foreign Relations From Putin’s Valdai Discussion Speech

Valdai Discussion Club is a Moscow based think-tank organization. It has been organizing multi-user forums where specialists, journalists, and academicians from Russia and different countries participate since 2004. It was named after the Valdai Lake located near the city of Veliky Novgorod where the first ever meeting was held. Valdai Club runs various regional programs such as Asia, Middle East, and Europe-Atlantic Dialogues; St. Petersburg International Economic Forum; East Economic Forum.

Russian Head of State Vladimir Putin has been participating as a speaker in the most comprehensive Valdai forum per annum and explains about the argument-concomitant fields in Russia such as foreign relations, defense, and energy. The details of Putin’s speech texts are generally built on anti-West and anti-US arguments; subjects are handled such as the Ukranian crisis, criticism about the dialogue with the West and the international politics of the US, insecurity towards NATO, international terrorism, Syrian problem, negativities spawned due to the mono-polar world order, inessentiality of the sanctions against Russia.

The Valdai Speeches, which underline that Russia is not a totalitarian country as viewed from an external perspective, present a challenging viewpoint to the incidents happen in the international political arena and their backgrounds. These critical discourses of Putin, which make an impact throughout the world, harbors a lot of data for historical, sociological, ideological, and psychological analyses. 

However, there is another fact that should not go unnoticed; many of the countries use such meetings where specialists gather as a platform in order to justify and explain their domestic and foreign policies. The use of the words “soft power” are not only used by Russia but also by other countries. Just like Marcel H. Van Herpen stated in one of his findings; “The Valdai meetings are Kremlin’s power practice in order to form a basis for their foreign policy objectives and use Russia’s charm to gain sympathy in the West.” In other words, Russia reaches its goal as a whole.  

Analysis From the Perspective of Recent History

Russian Federation was on the verge of a difficult process after the disintegration of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and as well as the country could not manage to provide economic and political stability, the resplendence of the period, the loss of the prestige in the international arena and the superpower image caused the Russian people to have sociological trauma. It is inevitable for this national trauma to be reflected on the scientists and statesmen.

This was one of the main reasons for the brain drains to different countries after the 1990s. Both throughout the history of Russia and the period of USSR, the efforts towards standing upright and the desire to appear superior against the West and especially the US were reflected on the speeches of the statesmen. For example, Putin stated in 2014 during his Valdai speech that the Eurasia Economic Union had a future with regards to being transparent and more careful by doing the right moves in the economy by comparing the European Union and the EEU where Russia will play the leading part.

In the same speech, he drew a conclusion that Russia was a more perspective presenter after he made a comparison with the US about the political attitudes in the international and national platform.  “The president is elected by the people in Russia, and the voters elect the president in the US (…) the one who declared itself the victor of the Cold War (…) the US greatly increases the instability in the world.” (Valdai, 2014) Double standards in the field of geopolitics pose a danger for Europe towards having consistent development. (Valdai, 2017) 

“The crises in Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government and Catalonia contain overtones of the double standard practice of the West.” (Valdai, 2017) 

“Europe’s support towards the disintegration of some of the countries and dissolution of Kosovo ignited separatist tendencies and this made way for the present situation in Catalonia.” (Valdai, 2017)

“The most important mistake we have done for the relationships with the West is the fact that we had trusted them very much, and their mistake was to acknowledge this trust as weakness only to end up abusing this trust.” (Valdai, 2017)

The US is really conducting a never-seen-before campaign against Russia. It started during the time of the former government (US President Barack Obama) and it still continues this day. (Valdai, 2017″

Putin, who stated that they did not want to increase tensions between the US and Russia, and expected the domestic policy crisis in the US to get better after the presidential elections in 2020 and thus “the wind to cease”. Putin, who further stated “Negotiation is better than quarrels”, explained that they perfected their nuclear potential and not afraid of anybody; however, they would not cause any trouble for anybody neither and said; “But they cause trouble for us”. Another interesting point he made was about if Russia would experience a nuclear attack; “We will go to heaven as martyrs. But they will all kick the bucket.” 

In his same speech, Putin reminded by referring the USSR that “the world changed after the great state was disintegrated” and pointed out that  the disintegration of the Soviet Union was not appealing for many neither in Russia nor in the former union republics, and continued his words after explaining how the social structure was decayed in the 1990s, economy was destroyed, and crime rate increased and said: “Today, the world is becoming multipolar once again and this brings a particular danger in itself. This is why it is a must to reestablish the international law and status of international institutions.” 

Reflexes Remaining from the Soviet Union

The people and the bureaucrats had been convinced that they had been surrounded by the other countries during the period of the Soviet Union. Not only the 17.075.000 km2 was inherited but also this kind of reflexes continued after the USSR. One of the most prominent features of the Russian national characteristics, which showed itself throughout the ten-century history of Russia, is skepticism against the stranger. The tendencies to alienate the others and disparage them are the characteristics of the Russian people. Approaching with caution, which originates from the “us and them” discrimination, is a show of strength arising from the anxiety of revealing the subconscious of their inability feeling which originates from the difficult conditions they faced in the past. The Russian people developed the understanding of “we are the best because we can survive even under the worst and most difficult conditions” because of to the heavy burden of the past. 

“They are trying to send Russia back to the 1950s but Russia will not return back to the 1950s.” (Valda, 2017)

“World politics are appointed just like the “ours-theirs” (friend and enemy) aircraft recognition system of ours. If it is one of ours, different standards apply, and if it is one of theirs, a totally different approach awaits them, and there is no chance for the West to enjoy it under such circumstances.” (Valdai, 2018)

“And we will remain as the “others” forever in the eyes of the West.” (Valdai, 2018)

It is conceivable to say that Russia has tangible foundations originating from the US foreign policy when the idea of being surrounded, which is evaluated from a socio-psychologic viewpoint and played an important role in the formation of the Russian national characteristics, analyzed from a historical frame. Russia, which harbors different ethnic, language, and religious identities together in its immense soils, has been following an extant foreign policy because of its vulnerability concerns. 

This natural obstacle and objective of eliminating the deprivation with territorial expansion caused Russia to adopt authoritarianism and expansionist strategies. Russia did not only settle with militaristic expansion but targeted ideological expansion too. It is possible to evaluate USSR’s efforts to spread the communist doctrine from this point of view. Similarly, NATO throughout the periods of the USSR or Russian Federation is the product of the US’ expansionist and surrounding policy in the eyes of Moscow.

Putin told about a speech he made addressing the leaders of the Eastern European countries, which declared that they joined NATO after becoming independent but once a part of Yugoslavia; “I asked them why did they sell their independence.” (Valdai 2014) Putin put the record straight in a way with this sentence and expressed his distrust towards NATO, because of the fact that NATO had bombed Yugoslavia, a part of the USSR, starting from 24 March 1999 until 10 June 1999. Putin finds this action of NATO unforgivable, develops a hostile attitude against the US because of its participation and conveys how it is impossible for this situation to change to then-President G.W. Bush during his Washington visit in 2001. (Gessen, 2015:208) Putin also explains how disturbed he is about Yugoslavia 6 years after this meeting during a speech in Munich. The ideological ground here supports the fact that NATO is a military pact which was established around the objective of surrounding communism with capitalism. 

The sociologic bases of the anti-West and anti-US opinions expressed by Putin, which are mentioned during nearly all of his speeches in the international arena, dates back to the civil war in the 1917 revolution. There had been a process when Russia was targeted and demonized as the enemy of the West, and left the people alone, who were forced to deal with the devastating psychology of Stalin’s war of nuclear armament, fighting against the economic devastation caused by the war. The strategy of shifting people’s reactions to another direction gave birth to the Western hostility and this led to the beginning of the Cold War. 

“The prosperity of the US depends on the investor who trust the country, foreign billionaires, and American bonds. This trust is clearly shaken. A lot of countries started running away from dollars and were in search of alternative currencies. The West pays more and more prices in order to remove the risks they created themselves in the first place. Once upon a time, they supported the extremist groups during the cold war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. These groups happened to be Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. When I analyze the current affairs, I am under the impression that the West is paying the price for its wrong policy.” (Valdai, 2014)

Anti-Westernism gave birth to the nationalism feeling and the Eurasianist ideology was established originating from this feeling. Nationalism forms the general framework of anti-Westernism and Orthodoxy. The ideology of Eurasianism is categorized into two main groups; “moderate Eurasianism” and “extremist Eurasianism”. “Democratic Statism” and “Slavophile Eurasianist” can be added in addition to these groups. Two further groups are formed from these groups by the extremist Eurasianists; “modernizationist” and “expansionist”. The expansionist group adopts the idea of expanding into wide geography swiftly. Eurasian Economic Union has a place under the wings of “modernist Eurasianism”. 

“We are a unitary nation. Kyiv is the mother of all Russian cities.” (Valdai, 2014) (*Russian city-state of Kievskaya had been an important center for the development of the Slav communities and states between the years 900-1400.)

Multifarious Foreign Policy

As a result, Russia wants to strengthen its position in the “multipolar world” strategy. The country still continues its multifarious foreign policy just like they did during the Soviet Union era. Russia never changes its attitude and influences in different regions despite the fact that there is a lot of criticism about its foreign policy approaches. “Russia has been very clear to the US about the matter of nuclear weapons. However, Russia witnessed the terror in the Caucasus and the tragic incidents in the former Yugoslavia in return.” (2017) 

“Russia condemns North Korea’s nuclear experiments and abides by all of the decisions of the United Nations Security Council. You like the North Korean government or not but yu cannot forget that North Korea is an independent country. Every kind of dispute must be resolved in a modern way. Russia keeps calling for everybody to adopt this approach.” (2017)

“The negotiations about Syria in Astana proceed positively. Establishing regions in order to ease the tension was the most important result in Astana. We have the data in our hands in order to estimate if it is possible to clear out the terrorists in Syria in a short span of time. However, the threat will not go away even after clearing these terrorists. Exterminating terrorism in Syria does not mean that we also exterminated terrorism in the region or the world.” (2017)

Putin reminded that Japan answered the appeals of peace between Japan and Russia with sanctions and asked, “Is this the way to fix the relations?” (2018)

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.


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