By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
In contrast to previous conferences, this year’s 14th annual Valdai conference “Creative Destruction: Will a New World Order emerge from the current conflicts” was somewhat different. The reason is the fundamental “paradigm change” which the world has seen in the aftermath of the election of US President Donald Trump: his unpredictability, his at times extremely dangerous statements, his highly egotistic and erratic behavior are threatening the world with instability. In the East and in the West, in Russia and in Europe, the politicians and the peoples, perplexed by the way current US President, Donald Trump, is handling sensitive issues like North Korea, are in the grip of a growing pessimism.
There were many different panels during the Valdai Conference. For example one dealt with “The Conflict between differing geopolitical worldviews”, and much was discussed about the grand design “One Belt-One Road”. The discussion took place between Russian Professor Sergej Karganov, Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Fu Ying, chairwoman of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Committee, Nabil Fahmy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Egypt, Theo Sommer, Editor at Large “Die Zeit” and William Wohlforth, Daniel Webster Professor, Department of Government, Dartmouth College, US. Both the Russian and Chinese panelists saw in light of the crumbling World Order, the need for joining the Eurasian One Belt- One Road initiative, since it is to the benefit of the entire world community, a truly win- win situation, as the Chinese put it, while Theo Sommer stressed the need to find peaceful solutions and have a “grand bargain” between Russia and the West in respect to solving the Ukraine crisis. Other panels discussed about the future of scientific and technological progress and the impact this will have on society, the conflict between man and nature, between progress and humanism and the question how to overcome the gap between rich and poor.
Putin: we need to “disentangle” conflicts
The Russian president spoke at the final panel of the conference: “The World of the Future. Moving through Conflict to Cooperation.” His speech was frank and he took some time in order to illustrate what political processes and manoeuvers by the West in the last 25 years provoked mistrust and disappointment on Russia’s side. He qualified the present international relations as “simply degraded” and emphasized that the world is becoming less and less secure. “Instead of progress and democracy, free rein is given to radical elements and extremist groups that reject civilization itself and seek to plunge it into the ancient past, into chaos and barbarism. The history of the past few years graphically illustrates all of this. It is enough to see what has happened in the Middle East, which some players have tried to reshape and reformat according to their liking, and to impose a foreign development model trough externally orchestrated coups or simply by force of arms (…) Instead of working together to redress the situation and deal a real blow to terrorism, rather than simulating a struggle against it, some of our colleagues are doing everything they can to make the chaos in this region permanent. Some still think that it is possible to manage this chaos.”
Yet Putin also noted that there were some positive examples in recent experience, referring to Syria where “Russia is opposing terrorists together with the legitimate Syrian government and other states of the region and is acting on the basis of international law. I must say that these actions and this progress have not come easy. There is a great deal of dissension in the region. But we have fortified ourselves with patience and, weighing our every move and word, we are working with all the participants in this process with due respect for their interests.” He qualified the efforts made by Russia as giving hope, through measures which – as he stated – have proven to be “important, correct, professional and timely.”
In respect to the conflict around the Korean Peninsula, Putin underlined that Russia unequivocally condemns the nuclear tests conducted by the DPRK and fully complies with the UN Security Council resolutions concerning North Korea. But the problem of North Korea, he emphasized, can only be resolved through “dialogue. We should not drive North Korea into a corner, threaten force, stoop to unabashed rudeness or invective.” He further noted: “Whether someone likes or dislikes the North Korean regime, we must not forget that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a sovereign state. All disputes must be solved in a civilized manner. Russia has also favored such an approach. We are firmly convinced that even the most complex knots – be it the crisis in Syria or Libya, the Korean Peninsula or say Ukraine – must be disentangled, rather than cut.”
Europe-the Pandora box Kosovo and its consequences today
Reference was also made to the crisis in Spain, the Catalonian crisis – which according to Putin is “an internal matter for Spain and must be settled based on Spanish law in accordance with democratic traditions. We are aware that the country’s leadership is taking steps towards this end.” Putin qualified the attitude of the EU and number of states which condemned the supporters of independence as following however as “double standard” – since the same people provided unconditional support to the secession of Kosovo, trying at that time “to please the big brother in Washington.” Kosovo however has opened a “Pandora box” since it provoked similar processes in other regions of Europe and the World. He mentioned the Crimean issue, Catalonia and Kurdistan.
In reference to the US, Putin strongly criticized the US sanctions policy vis a vis Russia and qualified the recent moves by US Congress as indicating that the US is “openly looking for its commercial benefits by extending further sanctions to Russia,” an element of it being to sabotage the North Stream 2 energy project. “The recent package of sanctions adopted by the US Congress is openly aimed at ousting Russia from European energy markets and compelling Europe to buy more expensive US-produced LNG (liquefied natural gas) although the scale of its production is still too small,” Putin said. “Attempts are being made to create obstacles against our efforts to forge new energy routes – the South Stream and the North Stream – even though diversifying logistics is economically efficient, beneficial for Europe and promotes its security.” A strategy, he concluded, which is based on self-assurance, egotism and claims to exceptionalism, and will not bring any international improvement. Rather, it will evoke natural and justified rejection and resistance.
Warning of a Brave New World
Very striking was the President’s cautioning remarks in respect to the breathtaking scientific and technological progress, “robotic automation and digitalization which are already leading to profound economic social and cultural changes in values as well.” Despite the enormous opportunity that these prospects offer, he pointed out that at the same time we have to find answers to plenty of questions: “What place will people occupy in the ‘humans-machines-nature triangle’? (…) How will employment be maintained in the era of automation? How will the Hippocratic Oath be interpreted, once doctors possess capabilities akin to all-powerful wizards? And will human intelligence finally lose the ability to control artificial intelligence? Will artificial intelligence become a separate entity independent from us?”
Whereas previously geopolitical aspects such as a country’s territory, military power and natural resources were important, now there is also another factor, the scientific and technological issues which will increase and which may lead to a dynamic that, as he put it, has “game changing potential” and thus “the scientific and technological aspect will become a factor of universal and political importance.” A harmonious future, he stated, is impossible without social responsibility, without freedom and justice, without respect for traditional ethical values and human dignity. Otherwise, instead of becoming a world of prosperity and new opportunities, this ‘Brave New World’ will turn into a world of totalitarianism, castes, conflicts and greater divisions.”
The missed historical opportunity
During his address, President Putin for the first time in detail went through what had gone wrong in the relations between the two big superpowers, USA and Russia, beginning with the 1990s when “a really unique chance arose to open a truly new chapter in history. I mean the period after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. (…) After dividing up the geopolitical heritage of the SU, our Western partners became convinced of the justness of their cause and declared themselves as the victors of Cold War, as I just mentioned, and started openly interfering in the affairs of sovereign states, and exporting democracy just like the Soviet leadership had tried to export the socialist revolution to the rest of the world. We were confronted with the redistribution of the spheres of influence and NATO expansion.” While Russia was probably “overconfident”, which led to mistakes whose effects lasted two and half decades, now “what we see is mutual distrust and an intensification of the global imbalance.” The joint agenda is being eroded and “basic multilateral international treaties and bilateral agreements are being devalued.”
Breaching various bilateral agreements
As an example President Putin spoke about the way in which certain bilateral agreements that were signed in the 1990s, were handled by the Americans: “The first one, the Nunn-Lugar program, was signed on June 17th, 1992. The second one, the HEU-LEU program, was signed on February 18, 1993: Highly Enriched Uranium was converted into Low-Enriched Uranium. The projects under the first agreement focused on upgrading control system, accounting and physical protection of nuclear materials, dismantling and scrapping submarines and radioisotope thermonuclear reactors.” Putin emphasized that “the Americans had made 620 verification visits to Russia to check our compliance with the agreements and that they visited the ‘holiest’ of the Russia nuclear weapons complex, namely the enterprises engaged in developing nuclear warheads and ammunition and weapons – grade plutonium and uranium, i.e. the United States gained access to all top-secret facilities in Russia.”
Concerning the second agreement, the “Americans made 170 more visits to our enrichment plants, touring the most restricted area. There was even a permanent American observation post” and in addition, as Putin stated, there were 100 American specialists from 10 different US organizations who conducted additional inspections at any time without warning. All this lasted for 10 years. Under this agreement 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium were removed from military circulation in Russia, which is equivalent to 20.000 nuclear warheads. “The HEU- LEU program has become one of the most effective measures of true disarmament in the history of mankind.” Also Russian experts visited US side, but under US conditions. While the Russian side demonstrated, according to Putin “absolutely unprecedented openness and trust,” they in turn received “total neglect of our national interest, support for separatism in the Caucasus, military action that circumvented the UN Security Council, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia and Belgrade, the introduction of troops into Iraq and so on. Once the condition of the nuclear complex, the armed forces and the economy had been seen, international law appeared to be unnecessary.” While Russia ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty more than 17 years ago, the USA has yet not done so, while instead it pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.
Responsibility for the future: we can only have a shared future
President Putin emphasized that what “should unite us, is the responsibility for the future.” He referred to the unique role of the UN, which with its “universal legitimacy” must remain the center of the international system. There is no alternative to the UN today with its fundamental principles which should be preserved for decades to come. In a time where new civilizational alliances and political and economic associations emerge, “such regional organizations in Eurasian, America, Africa, the Asia-Pacific regions should act under the auspices of the United Nations and coordinate their work. However each association has the right to function according to its own ideas and principles, that correspond to its cultural, historical and geographical specifics. It is important to combine global interdependence and openness with preserving the unique identity of each nation an each region. We must respect sovereignty as the basis underlying the entire system of international relations.”
Some of the thinking of President Putin was also reflected during the discussion of the last plenary session. During the Q & A period there was a question by former German Ambassador von Ploetz: “I was struck by the pessimism about East-West relations. And I tried to remind people that during the Cold War we had bigger differences than we have today. But our younger generations, and also the business community is unhappy with the present situation. Would you give a little bit of encouragement and say: ‘It may not look as good as it should be, but there are perspectives and I am working on it?’”
President Putin replied: “You know indeed you are right; we had more differences and disagreements in Soviet times. However, do you know what else was in even greater supply? Respect. (…) We used to be more respectful of each other’s interests. Clearly respect must be backed up by economic and military power. This is clear. We ourselves are largely to blame for putting ourselves in such a position. In the humiliating situation we were in the 1990s, when we allowed you to access our nuclear facilities expecting you to reciprocate. However you did not, and expecting you to, was probably stupid on the part of those who did so, back in that new Russia.” To end with a positive note, he said: “I believe that much, in resolving the issues of interest to you and us, depends on working together. This should help us stay focused on the thought that our prospects are good. We just talked about Syria. To reiterate – I do not think I can disclose the details – but we have a dialogue at the working level, at the level of special services, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, almost on a weekly basis. We do achieve some results, which means we are capable of it. I think that this approach should be applied to other areas of our relations as well.”