At the Valdai [International] Discussion Club, Vladimir Putin once again held court. If one views what took place from a position of it being advantageous for a journalist, he did not disappoint. One may judge this by the cornucopia of scathing material devoted to his invectives against the United States.
However, it is not the analysis of the invectives that is of particular interest, but rather the fact that most of the observers interpreted them incorrectly. Quite predictably, American journalists and scholars, operating from a memorized script, hurriedly debunked Putin’s remarks as unjustified criticism of the United States and its foreign policy. Furthermore, some observers in the U.S. immediately tried to construe Putin’s critical theses as a wake-up call for Europeans, urging them to support their American ally.
But the Europeans were in no need of such prompting. The Americans are certain Europeans are extremely naive in their perception of Russia, but the Old World has its own view on Moscow’s many shortcomings.
The Europeans are somewhat astonished by the shortsightedness of American observers. Perhaps they simply don’t understand what is happening. Without a doubt, Putin and the forces he controls have committed a series of illegal actions in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean that Putin, in his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, didn’t hit the nail on the head on the essential points — though, of course, not on all of them. Few Europeans seriously question his assertion that the U.S. government is “forever doing battle with the results of its own policies” and is forced to solve “problems that it created itself.”
If only Putin hadn’t gone too far in his rhetoric and his conceptions of the modern world! Putin’s fundamental problem is that he still lives in a world where the law of “an eye for an eye” is in effect, in a world where Russia has the “right” to make the very same mistakes as the United States. But this road will hardly lead to the truth. In order for his efforts to turn out successfully, Putin needs to choose a direct path, not follow in the footsteps of the United States, and strictly adhere to common sense where the U.S. has acted absurdly.
Putin severely miscalculates elsewhere too: Despite Russia Today’s overt propaganda efforts and the purchase of advertising in Western media, his country has almost no soft power. Compare what is happening with how the United States acts. Yes, the U.S. government, consciously or not, has gradually lost many components of its soft power. And Putin is indeed right when he talks about the shortcomings of Washington’s policies in the international arena. Nevertheless, the United States has substantial soft power capital left. Why? The reason the U.S. government is to some extent coping with the situation is that many, whether they openly admit it or not, admire the United States as a country and as a society. This admiration is to a large extent typical of some Russian oligarchs.
Yet another of Putin’s mistakes lies in the systematic intimidation of Europe with [the prospect of] a global danger, including nuclear danger. The Russian president’s aim is supposedly to make the European perspective less biased. After the Malaysian Boeing flight MH-17 was downed in the Donbass, this task has become very difficult. But let Putin assay his strength. In any case, the bluster over the nuclear question is a sure way for him to alienate himself from every last European (not including odd individuals like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban) still willing to listen to his opinion.
Just as counterproductive is Putin’s attempt to draw attention at all costs to the emergence of a non-Western world order. Once again, he is only half right. Any person (just not in Washington) would agree that the world needs to move toward a post-American order due to the harm U.S. foreign policy has inflicted over the past 10-plus years. But if Putin now announces, for example, an alliance with China, he gives the impression of a man who has fallen into self-deception. It’s obvious that as far as China is concerned, his rhetoric far exceeds his influence. The Chinese know how to use him for their own purposes, how to play with him at his own game, then turn their backs on him.
The two-part lesson Russia’s president should immediately learn if he wants his country to have a chance for a revival is as follows: First, put an end to any actions that are in flagrant violation of international law; and second, understand that it’s impossible to achieve anything by resorting to threats, other than a resurgence of fears associated with Russia. These fears are deeply rooted and therefore secretly persist even in good times.
In short, what is deeply bewildering in many of Putin’s actions and in much of his rhetoric is that it plays into the hands of Moscow’s main opponents. Such actions might help him consolidate power within the country, but political competition is almost nonexistent anyway. That which is capable of giving, at best, a minor effect within the country usually turns into a major negative in the international arena — not for the Americans (their relations with Putin’s Russia can be considered a hopeless cause), but for Europeans.
The bottom-line result of Putin’s actions in recent years has been that he himself has brought the Europeans and the Americans much closer together. It didn’t happen as a result of Europeans suddenly becoming more trusting of the Americans (on the contrary, the exact opposite has occurred even in the European establishment). Nor is it the result of effective PR moves undertaken by the American side with the aim of misleading the Europeans. No, this stunning result is a direct consequence of Putin’s uncanny ability to brew things that are doomed to fail. This, obviously, is the last thing Russia expects from its leader.