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