By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Russian President Vladimir Putin during this year’s 18th annual Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi (October 18-21), took the occasion to have an in depth and direct discussion with the members of the Valdai Club and its participants – all in all 140, with representatives from 40 countries. For almost two years, due to the Corona Virus, there had been no “live” annual conference of the Valdai Club in Sochi. The title of the Conference was “Global Shake -up in the 21st Century: The Individual Values and the State.” The president emphasized that we “live in an era of great change,” which he identified as a “crisis of approaches and principles that determine the very existence of humans on earth.” What we see at present are “systemic changes in all directions – from the increasingly complicated geophysical condition of our planet to a more paradoxical interpretation of what a human is and what the reasons for his existence are,” the president said.
There were altogether 7 panels on subjects such as an analysis of the pandemic and the question of its global social, economic and psychological consequences. A special session on “Russia and Europe” (with Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Italy) as well as with Xiang Lanxin (Director of the Institute of Security Policy and China National Institute for SCO for international Exchange and Judicial Cooperation) was held. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke at Valdai separately and used a press conference to focus his s remarks on the presently “aggravating Russia-NATO relations”, in reaction to the fact that contacts between the military personnel NATO and Russia were cut off, which sets a dangerous precedent.
The panel was followed by a session on the “Environment and the global Climate crisis,” as well as by one session about “Russia and the World: The national Idea in a global context,” with representatives from cultural institutions such as Konstantin Bogomolov (Artistic Director, Moscow Drama Theater on Malaya Bronnaya). Another session was devoted to the question of “30 years of a New Eurasia” and one on “Russia as a solution” including as speakers among others Sergey Karaganov (Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs). On the last day there was a discussion with the audience, moderated by the German Kremlin Expert and close affiliate to the Valdai Club, Alexander Rahr (Scientific Director of the German Russian Forum). The conference concluded with a more than four hours long plenary session with President Vladimir Putin.
Values and the State
In his speech the President drew attention on the question of “Values and the State,” identifying the underlying parameters and principles of the present global shake- up, the roots of which are “philosophical and cultural.” The first being the climate change and environmental degradation “which is undeniable, given floods, droughts, hurricanes and tsunamis becoming the new normal and we are getting used to them.” In the context of this year’s tragic floods in Europe or Turkey and the fires in Siberia, according to Putin it seems , “that any geopolitical, scientific and technical, or ideological rivalry becomes pointless in this context, if the winners will have not enough air to breathe or nothing to drink.” With the Corona virus pandemic, being another reminder how vulnerable humanity is, “our most important tasks is to ensure humanity a safe existence and resilience. …We must think how we go about our lives, how we run our households, how cities develop and reconsider economic priorities of entire states. Safety is one of our main imperatives.”
- “Socioeconomic problems facing mankind have worsened to the point where in the past they would trigger world- wide shocks, such as world wars or bloody cataclysms (…) Everyone is saying that the current model of capitalism which underlies the social structure in the overwhelming majority of countries, has run its course and no longer offers a solution to a host of increasingly tangled differences.” In many countries including rich ones, the inequality is exacerbated within international societies and at the international level. Furthermore, a number of countries are regularly hit by food crises, which will become worse in the future and reach extreme forms. There are also shortages of water and electricity, not to mention poverty, unemployment rates or lack of adequate health care.” One result is “uncontrolled migration” which in turn creates ground for social discontent in more prosperous countries.
Putin deplored the fact that the pandemic, which in theory was to rally people in the fight against a common threat, has become a “divisive rather than a unifying factor.” In addition, there is no real working together, which Russia has called for many times. He emphasized that in fact “egotistic interests prevail over the notion of the common good.”
According to Putin, given that “the international order is structured around nation states,” only “sovereign states can effectively respond to the challenges of the times and the demands of the citizens. When a real crisis strikes, there is only one universal value left and that is human life (!) which each state decides for itself how best to protect on its abilities, culture and traditions.” He made an interesting reference to events in Russia more than 100 years ago, when revolutionary shocks “which led to the collapse and disintegration of a great power” (Bolshevik Revolution). The second time this happened 30 years ago, when a potentially very powerful nation failed to enter the path of urgently needed flexible but thoroughly substantiated reform at the right time, and as a result it fell victim to all kinds of dogmatics, both reactionary ones and the so-called progressives. This underlined that “revolutions are not a way to settle a crisis but a way to aggravate it. No revolution was worth the damage it did to the human potential.”
Bolsheviks and the destruction of age-old values
- The importance of solid support in the sphere of moral, ethics and values is increasing dramatically in the modern fragile world. Values are a product, a unique product of cultural and historical development of any nation (…) Any attempts to force one’s values on others with an uncertain and unpredictable outcome, can only further complicate a dramatic situation and usually produce the opposite reaction and an opposite from the intended result.” The president drew attention in particular to processes underway in countries, which have been traditionally looked at as the standard bearer of progress. Of course the social and cultural shock taking place in Europe and US “are none of our business, we are keeping out of it, “but some people believe that aggressive elimination of entire pages from their own history” reverse ‘discrimination’ against the majority in the interest of a minority, and “the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of these are the mileposts on the path towards social renewal.” He pointed out that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people has a different opinion of this matter: “We believe that we must rely on our own spiritual values, our historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation.”
“After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks, relying on the dogmas of Marx and Engels, also said that they would change existing ways and customs and not just political and economic ones, but the very notion of human morality and the foundations of a healthy society. The “destruction of age- old values, religion and relations between people, up to and including the total rejection of family (we had that too), encouragement to inform on loved ones, all this was proclaimed progress and, by the way, was widely supported around the world back then and was quite fashionable. … “the Bolsheviks were absolutely intolerant of opinions other than theirs.”
From here the President drew a direct line to what is happening right now in a number of Western countries: “The right for equality and against discrimination has turned into aggressive dogmatism bordering on absurdity, when the works of the great authors of the past – such as Shakespeare- are no longer taught at schools or universities, because their ideas are believed to be backward. The classics are declared backward and ignorant of the importance of gender or race. In Hollywood memos are distributed about proper story-telling and how many characters of what color or gender should be in a movie. This is even worse than the agitprop department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (…) The new ‘Cancel culture’ has turned into ‘reverse discrimination’, that is, reverse racism. The obsessive emphasis on race is further dividing people, when the real fighters for civil rights dreamed precisely about erasing difference and refusing to divide people by skin color, like Martin Luther King who once would have said that he had a dream for his children that they will one day in a nation where they will not be judged by their color of their skin but by their character.” For the Russian people what matters is “that each of us is a human being.”
Worse than the agitprop department of the CPSU
He further mentioned those “Zealots” who will ostracize those that insist that it is a biological fact that men and women exist. “Parent number one and parent number two, birthing parent instead of mother and human milk replacing ‘breast milk’, because it might upset the people who are unsure about their own gender. I repeat this is nothing new. In the 1920s, the so called Kulturtraeger also invented some new speak believing they were creating a new consciousness and changing values that way, creating a total mess. (…) Not to mention some truly monstrous things when children are taught from an early age that a boy can easily become a girl and vice versa. That is, the teachers actually impose on them a choice we all supposedly have. They do so while shutting the parents out of the process and forcing the child to make decisions that can upend their entire life. They do not even bother to consult with child psychologists.” He called this a “crime against humanity under the banner of progress.”
Putin emphasized that “in shaping our approaches we will be guided by a healthy conservatism…… Now when the world is going through a structural disruption, the importance of reasonable conservatism as the foundation for a political course has skyrocketed – precisely because of the multiplying risks and dangers, and the fragility of the reality around us. (…) This conservative approach is not about an ignorant traditionalism, a fear of change or a restraining game, much less about withdrawing into our own shell.” It is primarily about “reliance on a time-tested tradition”, the preservation and growth of the population, a “realistic assessment of oneself and others, a precise alignment of priorities, a correlation of necessity and possibility, a prudent formulation of goals and a fundamental rejection of extremism as a method… moderate conservatism is the most reasonable line of conduct, as far as I see it.”
The President stressed that it is our “mission is to preserve this heritage (UN) while reforming the organization.” People in Russia would value stability and wish to live normal lives and prosper. “The conservative views we hold are an optimistic conservatism which is what matters the most. We believe stable, positive development to be possible. It all depends primarily on our own efforts. Of course, we are ready to work with our partners on common noble causes.”
During the question and answer period moderated by Valdai Club Director Fyodor Lukyanov, the President when being asked where he sees the difference between “healthy and unhealthy conservatism”, referred to one of his preferred philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev, a Christian philosopher and theologian (born in Kiev, 1874-1948; he wrote works about subjectivism and individualism in social philosophy. In Berlin he founded 1923 an academy and went to Paris where he died 1948 e.h.) As Putin recounted Berdyaev was expelled by the Bolsheviks from the SU in 1922: “He was a forward- thinking man but also sided with conservatism and believed that conservatism prevents you from sliding into chaos,” according to Putin who reiterated that what could “unite nations are values such as the belief in family as a universal value and procreation.”
The president at length also answered questions asked by various Russian historians from St Petersburg, relating to the history of World War II and Stalin. He underlined that is was “inacceptable” to place Nazis and Communists on the same level in what happened during WW II, referring to his personal in-depth study of historical archives in St. Petersburg, which are now getting “declassified”, about what happened during WWII. The Soviet government at the time, in contrast to the parties that met in Munich with Hitler, Putin emphasized, wanted to prevent the “disintegration of Czechoslovakia.” He added that it was important not to forget that it was “Germany that attacked the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941 and not vice versa. “Let us not forget who stormed Berlin.” Concerning a question on “homo sovieticus” asked by an Italian representative, Putin described Russia as a “melting pot” very similar to the US: “The Soviet person or Soviet is an ideological tinge. There was nothing good about it, because it narrowed the horizons. Yet positive features of the Soviet times are still reflected on the soviet people such as “patriotism inherent in our peoples, as well as supremacy of the spiritual dimension over the material things,” all these values including the “family.” But what was negative in the life and destiny of the SU also stuck to the Soviet people, was the fact that they were “deprived of property.”
Particular strategic concerns …Taiwan
In the Q&A period and the almost three hours debate with the audience, it is worth to mention some of the answers which Putin gave to various strategic representatives. For example, his answer to the Chinese representative Zhou Bo (Senior Fellow, Centre for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University and expert from the China Forum) as well as to Thomas Graham (Distinguished Fellow, Council in Foreign Relations USA). Both of them had spoken during the first conference panel that was devoted to the question whether the deadly Corona virus was a “substitute for a war or prelude it.” At that panel also former Brazilian Foreign and Defense Minister Celso Amorim spoke, making an urgent appeal to pay more attention to “multilateral institutions” like the G20, as a more adequate framework in order to find peaceful solutions to the present crisis and to reaffirm a multilateral world, while emphasizing the potentially very important role of BRICS. The Chinese strategist Zhou Bo expressed major concern about the escalating tension between the US and China (in particular in respect to Taiwan), with American war ships and airplanes flying into Chinese waters, he called this a very dangerous situation: “We Chinese ask cooperation but from a position of strength.” He underlined that China while being more and more integrated into the international system, wants to avoid conflict and confrontation.
Thomas Graham from the CFR emphasized that both the US and China have a lot of room to maneuver: “I don’t see war between the US and China as a rational decision. The problem is communication. We don’t have buffer zones. As soon as Beijing and Washington begin to conduct diplomatic relations – the better.” Graham also pointed to the “ambiguity” concerning the Taiwan question which has its origin in Kissinger’s foreign policy during the seventies and still continues. During the final plenary discussion, the Chinese Zhou Bo asked Putin about Afghanistan, which “lies at the heart of the SCO.” He wanted to know to what extent the Shanghai Cooperation, which is led by China and Russia, could help Afghanistan to achieve political stability and economic development, after the withdrawal of the US.
Putin by referring to a meeting in appropriate format with the Taliban that was held in Moscow during those days (Mid October), emphasized that “for both China and Russia it was extremely important to have a plan developing Afghanistan that is close to the Russian and Chinese border, not to become a source of terrorism, or any form of radicalism. With the ISIS still being in Afghanistan it would be necessary “to help Afghanistan restore its economy because drugs are another huge problem. It is a known fact that 90% of the opiates come to the world market from Afghanistan. Both China and Russia and the SCO have the main responsibility… The first thing is they must give Afghanistan an opportunity to resolve its high socio- economic problems. We can implement specific large projects and deal with domestic security issues. Our Special Services are in contact with their Afghanistan counterparts. For us the SCO is important, because there is Tajikistan and Uzbekistan right on the border with Afghanistan. We have a military facility in Afghanistan. Therefore, we will actively continue to work with China, in order to develop dialogue with relevant structures and promote cooperation within SCO as a whole.”
Another important question, raised by Prof. Robert Legvold from Columbia University NY, was related to Putin’s assessment concerning the present US / Russia relations after the June summit in Geneva. The Russian president stressed that in some areas, progress was happening in US /Russia talks; he paid much attention to the common fight in counter terrorism which “is not only possible but necessary” and defended President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Concerning other strategic hot spots, the Russian President was quite outspoken and irritated, when he was asked by one conference participant about the recent visit by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Kiev (Ukraine) that happened last week (in the context of the NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting and the escalation between US and Russia concerning the de facto shut down of the Russian mission at NATO headquarters e.h.) During his visit the US defense secretary signed a $ 60 billion strong military package for weapons with the Ukraine government, promising a bright future in NATO, the conference participant reported. Putin expressed particular concern about what goes on in Ukraine: “We are making every effort to improve these relations. But the threat (of NATO) is quite important to us. And you are right, that formal NATO membership may never happen, but military expansion on the territory is already underway (in terms of training centers) and this really poses a threat to the Russian Federation. We are aware of this.” He reminded in this context the NATO expansion eastwards- which began at the end of the Cold War and that ABM missile systems in Poland and Romania were deployed: “The Minister of Defense arrives, who in fact opens the door for Ukraine to NATO,” Putin said. “In fact, his statement can and must be interpreted this way. Even if everybody has the right to choose. But “what if tomorrow there are missiles near Kharkov?” And “missiles are being brought to our doorsteps. Of course, we have a problem here.”
Skyrocketing gas prices
Another important question dealt with the Energy market and the skyrocketing gas prices, where despite the blame put by German Greenie Leaders on Russia as being responsible for the gas price hike, President Putin reiterated what he had stated at the recent Moscow Energy Week, namely that “Shortages are increasing in the leading, economically advanced countries. The situation is deteriorating due to realities on the energy market.” Putin put a major blame on the EU Energy Commission by stating that “in the past five years, the EU common philosophy was entirely devoted to regulating the market of energy sources, including gas via a ‘commodity exchange, through the so called spot market’…They tried to persuade us to give up ‘long- term contracts were prices were tied to the exchange,’ that is market quotes on crude oil and petroleum products. … What happened on the European market? First a decline in production in the gas producing countries. Production in Europe fell by 22,5bn cubic meters during the first six months 2. The storage facilities were underfilled by 18,5 bn cubic meters and are only 71 percent full during the first six months of the year. If you look at the annual consumption this number must be doubled. Primarily American along with Middle Eastern Companies withdrew 9 bn cubic meters from the European market and redirected the gas to Latin America and Asia …
“The deficit on the European market may amount to about 70bn cubic meters which are a lot,” Putin explained. “This is result of European Commission’s economic policy, Russia has nothing to do with it…Gazprom has increased deliveries to Europe by 8,7% and deliveries to non-CIS countries by 12 % (which includes China as well).This represents all in all over 11bn cubic meters of gas, American and Middle Eastern companies undersupplied by 9 bn, while Gazprom increased its supplies by more than 11 billion cubic meters of gas. He made clear that it is absolutely possible for Gazprom to increase supplies seven times more. Referring to the gas Pipeline Nord Stream 2 he stated that its first line is filled with gas and if the German regulator issues the permit for shipping tomorrow, it can deliver 17,5 bn cubic meters of gas the day after tomorrow. He adding that in Nord- Stream 2 there is not only Gazprom but five European companies as well. So that the whole crisis also affects the interest of our partners in Europe.”