By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

This year’s 15th annual Valdai Conference that took place in Sochi 16th to 18th October was organized around the theme “Russia- Agenda for the 21rst Century”. The presentation of the annual Valdai Discussion Club Report “Living in a crumbling World” which was distributed to each participant, created a platform for a broad discussion among the 130 participants – including strategic, defense, economic and cultural experts- from Russia, China and Western countries. The conference ended with an almost three hours long lasting panel in which Russian President Putin had an in depth discussion with the audience about the present strategic challenges: the role of Russia in the Mideast, its cooperation with China as well as a long comment about Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which leaves no doubt, that Russia -in response to Trump’s sanctions and threats to abolish the INF treaty- is prepared to defend its own territory and sovereignty with all means.

The role of culture

What was striking during the Valdai conference was the broad attention which was given to the question of culture and its role in shaping the national identity of different societies. From the Russian side there was an effort to constructively contribute to the debate about culture, the role of universal culture in contrast to a culture of “political correctness” which is perceived by many Russian intellectuals as a determining factor of Western culture. During the panel on “Tradition and Future: National Identity in a changing world” some concepts were outlined which allow a deeper understanding about the dynamics of Russian culture and its role in shaping the Russian perception of the present reality.

The panel discussed the significance of a moral and cultural foundation as being crucial for the country’s successful development amid the changes in a global context, characterized by growing ideological and cultural fragmentations, polarization within societies and between nations and the need to give society a compass, to enable it to face external and internal challenges. A quite fruitful observation was made by Mickhail Pietrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, who spoke about the significance of “Dignity” and “History” in art illustrating this by pointing to some paintings in the museum that show the portraits of those Russian generals who successfully fought during the liberation wars 1812 against the Napoleonic oppression. He also mentioned that the museum had organized in Florence an art exhibition devoted to the subject of “Dignity” and “History” which made transparent some of the historical battles that Russia went through, like the battle of Borodino. At the same time he spoke about the Museum’s gallery which is devoted to many portraits of Russian poets like Pushkin.

Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky emphasized that Russia had 600 state theatres, 1000nds of museums and many private theaters, as well a free writers and that the people look for mental and spiritual guidance. He stressed that Russia is “unique”, thus reviving the idea of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is very much alive in the Russian “collective subconscious”. Fyodor Dostoevsky had once stated that “only a Russian has the universality, a mission to comprehend and unite in the future all the diversities of nationalities and to remove all their contradictions” (Valdai Club Website). Some of the panelists stated that Europe tries to push away Russian culture, being itself trapped by the Google watch and control programs, that exist in order to control popular emotions on a large scale, as they stated. Mrs. Solzhenitsyna, the wife of the famous Russian writer Solzhenitsyn, underlined the necessity to look for ways to “unite our society ”,while Russian State Theatre Director Konstantin Bogomolov spoke about the need to combine conservative values with innovations. He pointed to the significance of Dostoevsky –the writer’s study about human nature, as well as his analysis about crime and punishment, the significance of the figures “Ivan” and “Aljosha” in “The brothers Karamazov” and how Dostoevsky was able to analyze love, hatred and crime and put barriers against it. (In respect to the thirst in Russian society for classical culture, it is worthwhile to look at a report about the recent performance of the J.S. Bach B- minor mass [see FAZ 29th October] which was performed in Moscow by the Munich conductor Hansjörg Albrecht together with the Munich Bach Choir and the Russian Orchestra from the Moscow National Music Conservatory. What was reported was that like 50 years ago, when the same piece was performed by Karl Richter, the audience again was deeply moved by the religious work of Bach which evokes in many citizens who suffer from all kinds of hardship the creative tension between life and death. E.H.)

In a panel “Culture as the Cornerstone and a tool of Politics”, moderated by the well – known Polish film director Krysztof Zanussi (President of Tor Film Production) – a vivid discussion took place about the significance of “charity” in Russian culture. One of the panelists, Metropolitan Tikhon – Metropolitan of Pskov and chairman of the Patriarch’s Council for Culture (former Film producer), referred to the panel discussion, asking Putin during the final debate, whether “charity is a criterion of society’s general culture” and whether the state could support this. Putin responded by stating that the state must ensure the opportunity for every person to express his position and be tolerant, even if he had sympathy to Tikhon’s position. There was also a special session “My view on Russia” with the famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theatre. Gergiev is known for having brought his orchestra to the most remote areas of Siberia in order to have people enjoy classical music. As was reported by Valdai News, he told the audience that two years ago he performed with his orchestra a concert at the archeologically famous city Palmyra (Syria), after it had been liberated from the hands of the murderous, barbaric IS- to then see tragically again how the same cultural site became devastated again by the hateful IS terrorists. Gergiev made clear his deep desire for peace in Syria and underlined that there is something universal and precious in the Russian culture, which makes sure that one can overcome war and destruction.

President Putin warning: Reciprocal Counterstrike

This final discussion between the Russian President and the Valdai audience covered many topics, ranging from assessing the random assassin who had murdered several inhabitants in Kerch (Crimea) the day before the conference started. The president spoke about the “effects of globalization”, stating that “we have seen whole communities spring up in the internet after the well-known tragic events in US schools; young psychologically unstable people start to believe in false heroes,” he said. “This means that we in Russia and globally, are failing to respond to changes in the world. It means that we are not creating useful, interesting and essential content for young people, and they turn to this surrogate heroism that leads to tragedies like this.”

In terms of terrorism still posing a grave threat to Russia, Putin underlined that this is the reason, “why we launched these operations in Syria”. The meaning of the “Russia Syria operation” was, according to him, to prevent the worst of events, the “complete degradation of statehood and infiltration of a significant part of the militants into the Russian territory of the Russian Federation and into the territory of neighboring states.” The President stressed that with its actions in Syria Russia has “preserved Syrian statehood and in this sense helped stabilize the region”. “We believe that we have generally achieved the goals we have set for ourselves in starting the operation in the Syria Arab Republic; we have achieved a result.” Most of the so called anti- terrorist operations under US guidance, he commented, did not achieve their goals and objectives. “While we liberated almost 95% of the entire territory of the Syrian Republic, Russia helped Syria to prevent a collapse of the State.” He at the same time warned that on the left bank of the Euphrates (…) “which is under patronage of the American partners who rely on Kurdish armed forces”. He reported that the ISIS remains in several locations and had begun to expand is area of influence recently. They “took 130 families hostage- almost 700 people” making an ultimatum, saying that if the ultimatum are not met “they would shoot 10 people every day. They have begun to fulfill their threats.” The fact that there is hardly anything reported in the Western press, according to Putin, had largely to do with the fact that many US and Europeans are among the hostages. The next steps in Syria should involve a “political settlement” in the framework of the UN Geneva talks and the “formation of a constitutional Committee” now. He was particularly grateful to the Turkish partners for having agreed to a demilitarized zone of 15-20 km, even deploying a military hospital there.

While President Putin reaffirmed Russia’s readiness to enter into dialogue with President Trump despite his attacks against Russia, including sanctions and harsh statements against the INF treaty, he took his time to outline the essence of Russia’s military and nuclear doctrine, repeating some of the arguments he had made in a March address to the Federal Assembly.

The President qualified Russia being one of the “largest nuclear powers …we are improving our attack systems as an answer to the United States building its missile defense system. Some of these systems have already been fielded and some will be put into service in the coming months. I am talking bout the Avangard System. Clearly we have overtaken all our, so to speak, partners and competitors in this sphere, and this fact is acknowledged by the experts. No one has a high- precision hypersonic modern weapon in service. So we feel confident in this sense.” He mentioned that Russia has a vast territory and doesn’t need anything from anyone but that it has always been the case in the history of the State that “we value our sovereignty and independence.” He mentioned that Russia is a “multiethnic state” and very tolerant with the representatives of different religions. Putin made a harsh warning which should be understood on the background of Trumps threat to abolish the INF treaty.

As Putin had outlined during his March Address, he repeated in front of the audience that (…) “there is no provision for- a preemptive strike in our nuclear weapons doctrine. Our concept is based on a reciprocal counter strike.” What this means in essence is “We are prepared and will use nuclear weapons only when we know for certain that some potential aggressor is attacking Russia, our territory. I am not revealing a secret if I say that we have created a system which is being upgraded all the time as needed- a missile early warning radar system. This system monitors the globe, warning about the launch of any strategic missile at sea and identifying the area from which it was launched. Second, the system tracks the trajectory of a missile flight. Third it locates a nuclear warhead drop zone. Only when we know for certain, and this takes a few seconds to understand that Russia is being attacked, we will deliver a counter strike. This would be a reciprocal counterstrike. Why do I say counter? Because we will counter missiles flying towards us by sending a missile in the direction of an aggressor. Of course this amounts to a global catastrophe but I would like to repeat that we cannot be the initiators of such a catastrophe because we have no provision for a preemptive strike.”

Former French Prime Minister: Culture of Peace needed

The public debate which the President had with the audience – which also at length described Putin’s assessment concerning Russia’s strategic cooperation with Egypt. The well- functioning strategic alliance with China in the context of Chinas “One Belt One Road initiative and their engagement in expanding infrastructural and energy projects in the Arctic, as well as Russia’s commitment in respect to Iran and the possibility for a future peace treaty with Japan on the Kuriles Islands. It is noteworthy that during the debate a positive intervention was made by former French Prime Minister Jean- Pierre Raffarin who spoke about the need to “create a culture of peace.” “I am in politics for 40 years and I have never seen the world so dangerous,” Raffarin said. “We have a lot of conflicts and we have a lot of threats and we have a lot of war everywhere; school for wars. We have never schooled for peace. But we know that peace is not something coming from the sky; peace is work, hard work. So I would like to know how we can promote peace, promote antiterrorism, make reform – for example for multilateralism, for the WTO, for the Security Council? How can we develop a dialogue with people we do not agree with? And I think it is very important for people to know that no one wants a war in their country. They know that war is awful, as you said, a disaster. So, in this matter, how can we have some development of the culture of peace? And so may be together we can make peace great again.”

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