It was the bitter anti-US invective in a speech by Vladimir Putin on Friday that caught the headlines. But, alongside the vitriol, Russia’s president was offering the west a stark choice: work with Moscow and other rising economies on a more equitable global order, or things could get very bad indeed.
Left unclear, however, was whether failure to draw up new rules would simply lead to a further unravelling of global security – or whether Russia was threatening then to rewrite the rules by itself, fuelling the instability.
In what one Russian commentator called a new foreign policy doctrine, Mr Putin alleged that the US had declared itself the winner of the Cold War and then, over two decades, sought to dominate the world through “unilateral diktat”.
Addressing foreign journalists and academics in Sochi, he said the US had repeatedly violated the rules through military action – sometimes with Nato or European allies – in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and instigating often ill-fated “coloured” revolutions. Along the way, Mr Putin alleged, it had even used Islamist terrorists and neo-fascists as instruments.
That had made the world much more dangerous. Americans were “constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies, throwing all their efforts into addressing risks they themselves created”.
This puts Mr Putin’s version of reality diametrically at odds with that of the west. The US and EU say Russia violated the postwar order with its annexation of Crimea and intervention of east Ukraine. The Russian leader – while denying any Russian military presence in its neighbour’s territory – alleges Moscow was forced to react after the US backed a military coup, supported by far-right groups, in Kiev in February.
The jarring contradiction, plus western sanctions against Russia, might make any idea of dialogue seem fanciful. But this was what Mr Putin, obliquely, proposed.
“The logical way out is in co-operation between nations, societies, in finding collective answers to increasing challenges, and in joint risk management,” he said. The world needed the “legal, political and economic basis for a new world order that would allow for stability and security, while encouraging healthy competition”.
Mr Putin’s determination to rebuke US president Barack Obama obscured that message. The White House’s recent inclusion of Russia alongside Islamist militant group Isis and the Ebola epidemic in the top three global threats enraged Moscow.
But people familiar with the thinking behind Mr Putin’s speech suggest it aimed to acknowledge that US-Russian relations had reached a 30-year low and to draw a line under recent events.
If the west is prepared for dialogue, Mr Putin threw it some bones. Moscow was ready for “the most serious, concrete discussions on nuclear disarmament” and to discuss rules on when military intervention in third countries was permitted, he said.
That might, in theory, restrain Moscow’s ability to interfere beyond its borders to “support” Russian-speakers in ex-Soviet republics such as the Baltic states – which many western capitals fear it is contemplating. It would also constrain Washington’s role, sometimes along with European allies or Nato, as a global policeman.
If Mr Putin’s proposals for new rules were to be ignored, Russia would pose no threat, Mr Putin said. Accusations that it was trying to restore the Soviet empire were groundless. Instead, the danger was generalised chaos.
However, the Russian president hinted ominously at the danger of new conflicts involving major powers, particularly “at the intersection of major states’ geopolitical interests”. Ukraine was one example, “and I think it will certainly not be the last”.
Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst at Russia’s Centre for Political Technologies, wrote on a Russian website recently that Mr Putin’s logic was that “since the US was responsible for turning global politics into chaos, Russia assigned itself the right to act the same way”.
“If there are no rules for the US, there are no rules for Russia,” she said.
Some US members of the audience suggested the hardline tone of Mr Putin’s speech would make Washington even less likely to engage with Moscow. Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy, said it would “set back bilateral relations generally and further reduce the chance of US-Russian co-operation on the Ukraine crisis”.
But Alexander Rahr, a leading German expert on Russia and Putin biographer, said he believed Moscow was “not looking for confrontation”. Realpolitik might yet come into play, notably because of the crisis in the Middle East.
“America needs Russia’s help in dealing with Isis,” he said. “That might start to change things.”
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