Last Thursday, the Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi. The Valdai has for the past number of years provided a forum for the Russian elite to expound its views on global issues.
In 2014, another speech given by Putin at Sochi was regarded as a key insight into how the Russians perceived their place in an emerging new world order. Specifically, it set out Putin’s view that those he described as the “Cold War victors” led by the United States were attempting to maintain that hegemony through other means that threatened global chaos.
In asserting Russia’s independence and importance in determining any international balance of forces, Putin based this on a curious reiteration of how the former Soviet Union had been key to establishing such “rules for interaction” after 1945, but within the context of a post-Soviet Russia based on “democratic and open economy institutions.”
Last week’s speech provided a much more radical take on where the west is currently at. Putin’s attack on the moral and intellectual weaknesses he sees considerably ups the ante and, for the first time since the beginnings of détente, places Russia’s rivalry with the west, and in particular with the United States, in an ideological context.
All such pronouncements must of course be taken with a grain of salt when considering global politics. Putin’s speech cannot be understood outside of the context of the reality that the United States is in a weak position. That was underlined by the humiliation suffered by the Biden administration in Afghanistan.
It goes much further than that, however, and both the Russians, through energy exports, and the Chinese, via the Belt and Road Initiative, are strongly contesting and pushing back the power of American capital – not only in the developing world but increasingly even within Europe. It is perhaps no coincidence then that Putin’s speech follows closely on the Chinese campaign against what it regards as elements of western degeneracy within its own popular culture.
Another layer of complexity in all of this is provided by the relationships between the eastern and central European states and Russia. All have had unpleasant historical experiences with their neighbour particularly during the Soviet era, but in the case of Poland these antipathies date back much longer and continue to be a matter of concern. Hungary at present appears to have struck a balance between the proud assertion of its resistance to Stalinism, and a cordial understanding with Russia on many current issues.
Likewise, there are differences of opinion among what might be broadly described as the radical right with regards to Putin. Some western European conservatives like the Reassemblement National in France are very much pro-Russian and Marine Le Pen has described Putin as “a defender of the Christian heritage of European civilization.” The Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) takes an opposite position but was a co-signatory with RN of the July declaration by European parties opposed to EU centralisation. Some are tempted by the notion of Russia as a counterbalance to both Brussels and Washington.
One of the difficulties especially for the Poles regarding its relationship with Russia is that Putin, despite his stated antipathy to Bolshevism, stands over the role played by the Red Army in World War II including the invasion of Poland in 1939. To do otherwise of course would be to reject one of the foundations of post-Soviet identity.
Not surprisingly, the Poles take a rather different view. Not only they but the peoples of the former Soviet republics like Ukraine might also consider Putin’s objection to the “ideologisation” of the concept of Greater Russia, but not its concept, to be somewhat ominous.
Interestingly, one of the more comprehensive and sympathetic reports on Putin’s Sochi speech was carried by the American conservative new site The Daily Wire. An English translation of the speech and the ensuing questions and answers is available on the official Kremlin site.
Putin appears to accept much of the parameters which those western states he is critical of regard as pre-eminent: climate change, the need to re-adjust in the realities of Covid, and the continued evidence of economic imbalances. All of these create conditions in which stability is threatened. And if there is one thing Russian leaders have always disliked it is instability. Unless of course it is taking place elsewhere and might rebound to their advantage.
Following on the theme of his 2014 speech on the post Cold War global scenario, Putin reiterated his belief that the west can no longer regard itself as the pre-eminent force – and that this failure is responsible for the current crisis in international affairs. The United States had signally failed to achieve any of the aims which it set out in its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Flowing from that, Putin claims that the attempt to make national borders an anachronism has been exposed, and that “only sovereign states can effectively respond to the challenges of the times and the demands of the citizens.” He claims that there are no “universal values” to be imposed, and that “there is only one universal value left and that is human life, which each state decides for itself how best to protect based on its ability, culture and traditions.” One of those values Putin later refers to is that of the family.
Of course, that might be debatable where certain states and ideologies decide that what were always held to be values based in the Christian tradition are irrelevant or do not apply to the people under its control. Putin does not avoid that and is forthright in pointing out that the very same fallacies that underlie the ideology of Woke leftism were the foundations of the totalitarian nightmare endured by the Russian people and all of those who fell under its dark dominion.
Indeed, Putin claims that in ways “even worse than the agitprop department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” western culture is increasingly being dictated by an “aggressive dogmatism bordering on absurdity.” Among the fruits of this are the denigration of tradition under the narrow rubrics of notional equality especially in the areas of race and gender.
Putin is scornful of the transgender ideology that seeks to obliterate the biological differences between male and female. “Anyone who dares mention that men and women actually exist, which is a biological fact, risk being ostracised.” He again refers this back to the Soviet “Kulturtraegers” who believed that by creating a new language divorced from reality that they were creating a new reality and consciousness.
In place of this Putin proposes a “reasonable conservatism.” Such a perspective ought to be based on opposition to extremism and a valuing of tradition as the basis for dealing with current problems, including at an international level between sovereign states.
In response to a question regarding his distinction between positive and negative conservatism, Putin referred to the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev who was expelled from the Soviet Union by Lenin in 1922, for having in Solzhenitsyn’s word, “refused to debase himself.” Putin cited Berdyaev’s description of conservatism as “something preventing you from sliding back into chaos.”
What is more problematic from a western conservative position is that Putin seems to regard China as an example of where the market economy can be managed by a ruling party. However, he also speaks of the Nordic welfare state as something to be aspired to. The Nordic countries, whatever criticisms might be made of various aspects of their social model, have managed to create stable and prosperous democracies without the need for the monstrosities that have and continue to form the basis of Communist Party rule in China.
So, is Putin being just as relativistic in his application of the standards of human values when it comes to those outside of the broadly Christian tradition as the left? No serious conservative can countenance a situation where genocide, slavery and the denial of the rights common to the west are deemed to be tolerable for the peoples of the non-western world.
It is also apparent that Putin is happy to work with the Chinese through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in stabilising Afghanistan under Taliban control. The conditions for that appear to be that the Taliban will not actively promote Islamism beyond its borders and that it tackles the supply of opiates.
Interestingly the conference ended with Putin explaining at length the Russian agreements to supply gas to European countries. He referred to shortages not only in Europe but in the United States, where consumers have experienced massive hikes in petrol prices. Putin is clearly attempting to place Russia to the fore of addressing the crisis by increasing the volume of its gas exports.
Nor he is likely, despite the lip service paid to climate change, to be restricted in any of that by allegedly globally binding agreements on fossil fuel output. His stance places the absurdities of Eamon Ryan and others demanding debilitating economic restrictions for the “future of the planet” in their proper context. They are akin to under 10 hurling managers thinking that they are operating on the same planet as Brian Cody.
In the face of the apparent moral and intellectual bankruptcy of much of the western elite, Putin’s pronouncements are intriguing. However, they must be judged in the context of how Russia itself is facing up to its own problems. In the years immediately prior to his death Putin had made a point of celebrating the place of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Russian history. Solzhenitsyn had been variously critical and laudatory of Putin’s earlier career. It would be interesting to have his opinion now.