The year 2014 will go down in history as the year of a sharp downturn in relations between Russia and the West. The modifier “sharp” describes the qualitative change of the dimensions of mistrust in both scope and depth. The mistrust — not only toward the actions of the adversary, who is at all levels increasingly referred to with the euphemism “our partners,” but even toward the motives of those actions — is of an all-out nature. All the signs of a “cold war” are present. The assessment of experts is consolidated: Today, political futures for the midterm are quoted with a warning about a decline, a further downturn, all the way up to a confrontation.
The West’s system-wide complaints against Russia are well-known. It began to voice them loudly at various levels after 2003, after Khodorkovsky’s arrest: the contraction of democracy, political monopolism, attacks against the media, persecution of dissidents, the “Magnitsky” case, and the unfairness of the justice system. Last year, arguments regarding the “annexation of Crimea” and “support for separatists” in southeastern Ukraine were added. The West couldn’t help but react to a revision of borders in favor of a nuclear power without the consent of the existing global centers of authority and power.
The year’s most important ideological event for the justification of Russia’s position and complaints against the West, first and foremost against the USA, was Vladimir Putin’s Valdai speech. In it, the Russian president spoke in detail about the motives of a principled rejection of the existing international legal world order. The banner of uncompromising anti-Americanism was raised.
Below are some of the important points on today’s world order that Putin voiced in 2014.
– The mechanism of checks and balances, which, with difficulty, took shape in preceding decades, which was at times painfully drawn up, ought not have been broken, in any case, ought not have been broken without creating something as a replacement, or else there would really be no other tools besides brute force. The USA, having declared itself the victor in the Cold War, arrogantly, I think, thought that there was just no need for it. And instead of establishing a new balance of power, which is a prerequisite for order and stability, steps were taken that led to a sharp aggravation of the imbalance.
– The Cold War ended, but it did not come to an end with a pronouncement of peace, with clear and transparent agreements on compliance with existing or on the creation of new rules and standards. One got the impression that the Cold War’s so-called victors decided to put the squeeze on the situation, to reshape the entire world solely for themselves and for their interests.
– Under the pressure of legal nihilism, international law little by little surrendered its positions. Objectivity and fairness were sacrificed to political expediency. Legal norms were supplanted by arbitrary interpretation and biased assessments.
– For most nations, the very concept of “national sovereignty” has become a relative term. In essence, a formula was proposed: the stronger the loyalty to a single center of influence in the world, the greater the legitimacy of this or that regime.
– The enforcement of actions against recalcitrants are well-known and have been tried repeatedly: coercive actions, economic and propaganda pressure, interference in internal affairs, appeals to a kind of “super-legal” legitimacy when it’s necessary to justify illegal intervention in this or that conflict and the toppling of unwanted regimes.
– We are now once again seeing attempts to divide the world, to draw dividing lines, to put together coalitions not for, but against, anyone at all, to form once again the image of the enemy as it was in the years of the Cold War, and to be entitled to that sort of leadership or, if you like, diktat.
– Such steps will inevitably engender opposition, a backlash, and will have the opposite effect as well.
– Even today, the likelihood of a whole series of violent conflicts has sharply increased, conflicts, if not directly then indirectly, involving major powers.
– Success: A real result is possible only if the key players of international life can reach an agreement on reconciling basic interests, with reasonable self-restraint, if they are a positive example of responsible leadership. It’s necessary to clearly define where the limits of unilateral action are, and where there is a need in the context of improving international law for multilateral mechanisms to resolve the dilemma between the actions of the international community on ensuring security and human rights and the principle of national sovereignty and noninterference in states’ internal affairs.
– It can’t be about some kinds of local deals or the division of spheres of influence in the spirit of classical diplomacy or someone’s complete domination. I think it requires a new “edition” of interdependence.
At his big press conference at the end of the year, Vladimir Putin again outlined the geopolitical challenges facing the country. For great emotional strength, the president used for Russia the image of a bear, which “our partners” will never leave alone “because they will always seek to put him on a chain. And once they succeed in putting him on a chain, they’ll pull out both his teeth and his claws. In today’s understanding, it’s the forces of nuclear deterrence. Once it happens, God forbid, and the bear isn’t needed, they’ll immediately take over the taiga.”
Later on, more: The picture Putin paints of a future Russia looks simply terrifying. “And then, after that, once they pull out his claws and teeth, the bear isn’t needed at all. They’ll make a stuffed animal out of him, and that’s that. So it isn’t about Crimea. It’s about us defending our independence, our sovereignty, and right to existence. We should all understand that.”
As the old joke goes, you won’t sell an elephant with an attitude like that.* Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his complete mistrust of the West’s motives and actions, his staunch anti-Americanism, and took on an even more explicit commitment before the nation to protect the bear from enemies. So, it’s not necessary to expect a U-turn in relations with the West in 2015.
*Translator’s note: In the referenced joke, one businessman so boasts to another about how great his elephant is, that the second businessman decides to buy it from him. When the two meet again later and the second businessman dejectedly describes the trouble the elephant has since caused him, the first businessman replies with the quoted punch line.
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