hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 10 July 2014

President Putin Means What He Says

Alphen, Netherlands. 10 July.  On 1 July President Putin laid out Russia’s foreign and security policy priorities to Russian ambassadors and Heads of Mission at a closed door meeting in Moscow.  Three themes stood out: the primacy of the Russian national interest, a specifically Russian interpretation of international law and a new European security order.  Does President Putin mean what he says? 

President Putin has repeatedly expressed his world view in open fora over many years.  And yet neither American nor European leaders have appeared to have believed him.  Indeed, the only leader who has confronted Putin of late has been Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  As for the rest of the West the response to Putin’s clearly stated view of the Russian national interest has always been one of denial.  No wonder the man is frustrated.

As early as 2007 at the Munich Security Conference Putin accused the United States of seeking world domination. “What is a unipolar world? No matter how we beautify this term, it means one single centre of power, one single centre of force and one single master”.  In 2008 speaking in St Peterburg Putin laid out the principles of Russia-centric European security, “Firstly, not ensuring one's own security at the expense of someone else's. Secondly, not undertaking action within military alliances or coalitions that would weaken overall security. And thirdly, not expanding military alliances at the expense of other members of the treaty.”  At the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit President Putin told a stunned US President George W. Bush that, “…Ukraine is not even a country.  What is Ukraine?  Part of it is in Eastern Europe.  The greater part of it is a gift from us [Russia]”. 

In other words President Putin has been entirely consistent both in his world view and in his determination to pursue the Russian national interest in that context.  Which makes Putin’s 1 July statement all-the-more concerning.  Whilst Putin’s statement by and large re-confirmed then President Medvedev’s 2008 Sochi statement entitled “Five Principles of the New World Order” it was the tone of the language and the up-shift in ambition that was striking.

Putin used strong language to reinforce the lengths Moscow will go to assure its interests and ‘protect’ those who regard themselves as Russian, including the use of “self-defence”.  Putin also blamed the US and the EU for forcing Russia to intervene in Ukraine, although he was careful not to include certain European countries in his condemnation. 

Putin implied that American-led “deterrence policy” was a continuation of the Cold War. He told the assembled Russian ‘dips’ that Moscow would never have “abandoned” Crimea to “nationalist militants” or allowed NATO “to change” the balance of power in the Black Sea.  He also continued with his now well-established theme that the United States seeks global domination.

Critically, President Putin reinforced his commitment to a new European security order by seeking to further divide an already weak and divided Europe.  He blamed President Poroshenko for the breakdown of the ceasefire in Ukraine “in spite of the best diplomatic efforts of Russia, Germany and France”.  He also accused the US of “blackmailing” France with penalties against its banks and linked Washington’s actions to France’s intentions to sell Mistral assault ships to the Russian Navy. 

Putin also revealed a long-standing and apparently genuine frustration over what he sees as US hypocrisy.  Russia, Putin asserted, sought the mandatory application of international law “without double standards”.  In real-speak this means no action without a UN Security Council mandate, over which of course Moscow has a veto. 

President Putin also emphasised the continued expansion of Russia’s armed forces and the reinforcement of Moscow’s efforts to strengthen its sphere of influence as part of a new balance of power. With Moscow now spending 20% of all public funding on defence and with expenditure planned on Russia’s armed forces of some $700 billion by 2020 it is at the very least important that President Putin’s is listened to with care.  

To such a policy end Moscow would also seek to exert influence over states in the former Soviet Union and beyond through the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.

So what does President Putin want?  Putin understands power, weakness and opportunity.  The aim of his strategy is twofold.  First, the decoupling of the US (and to a lesser, less important extent the UK) from the security of Continental Europe.  Second, a new European security order built on a Russian-French-German alliance that excludes the US and UK.  Given Germany’s strategic ambivalence towards the US as evidenced by the latest spying scandal and the damage done by Edward Snowden President Putin also believes now is the moment to act.

Does President Putin mean what he says? Oh yes.  He always does - for good and ill.

Julian Lindley-French

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