A seminal speech

Echoes of Munich 2007 in Sotchi 2014

Note kindly translated by Anne-marie de Grazia

The speech delivered by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin[1], at the occasion of the 11th « Valdai Club » meeting, held at Sochi, is bound to be significant in the definition of the foreign policy of Russia. It is not the first time that Vladimir Putin engages in such an exercise. He did it already in February 2007 in Munich[2]. Whatever we may think of Russian foreign policy, we must pause and try to understand the meaning of such a discourse. Indeed, it doesn’t happen every day that a leader of the importance of Putin expresses himself in depth on the nature of international relations. A comparison between the speech delivered at Sochi on October 24th, 2014 with the one of 2007 becomes the more important. The Munich speech, coming after the period of international tension provoked by the American intervention in Iraq, amounted in some way to taking stock of the latter. It pointed to an awareness, at least diffuse, of a dangerous crisis of representations in international relations, which needed to be addressed. It is most regrettable that this speech, which at the time was discussed and broadly commented among specialists, did not have more of an impact. It anticipated in an astonishing way on the diverse crises which the world was to go through in the years following. The speech of 2014 arrives again at a time when international relations are much degraded. The Ukrainian crisis has put face to face Russia, supported by a large number of the countries considered as « emerging, » and the United States and its allies. This speech may be less rich on the plane of principles, but it is certainly more precise as to the definition of risks and threats, and it also constitutes a strong moment in international relations.

A pessimistic assessment of international relations.

In his speech of October 24th, 2014, Vladimir Putin expresses a strong pessimism concerning the evolution of international relations. When the Munich speech of 2007 was in a large part a discourse offering a new logic for these relations, he is presently assessing that, nothing having changed, degradation becomes inevitable. Let’s pick up on his statements; the first observation relates to the nature of the international situation:  First of all, changes in the world order – and what we are seeing today are events on this scale – have usually been accompanied by if not global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive local-level conflicts. Second, global politics is above all about economic leadership, issues of war and peace, and the humanitarian dimension, including human rights.” 

We can see here, in the words spoken, and we must remember that with a political leader, words are somehow tantamount to actions, that there is no longer any talk about a multipolar organization of the world, but of what he calls economic leadership, meaning, in reality, the question of hegemony. This question immediately brings up the problem of war and peace. Dramatization of the stakes is in keeping with the times. We have had, since 2011, the war in Libya, the consequences of which have affected the whole belt of the Sahel, particularly Mali, Niger and Nigeria, the war in Syria which is spilling over a large part of the Middle-East and presently a latent war, which doesn’t dare speak its name, but is quite real, in the East of Ukraine.

The assessment drawn is tinged with a profound pessimism as if Putin, and with him a large portion of the Russian political elite, had really believed in the possibility for the international powers to move beyond conflict and to reach an epoch of cooperation, and had been cruelly disappointed by the reality of the behavior of some countries, the United States to begin with. One can see that the incompetence, and also the aggressivity displayed by the leaders in Washington, be it George W. Bush or his successor, have left deep marks with the Russian leaders. But this pessimism is also the result of assessing the alignment of the European Union with the United States and the absence of control forces counterbalancing American policies. In so doing, the words he speaks sound like a requiem for the dream of cooperation. The fact that he is reducing the stakes of the developing events to the question of economic leadership gives a measure of the pessimism inherent in his discourse.

The question of law.

Vladimir Putin then refers his listeners to the consequences of this situation and draws up an extremely important parallel between the present situation and the one which had resulted from the Second World War. This passage picks up one of the themes constantly advanced by the Russian President since 2007, the one of international law. Again, he starts with a statement: «Sadly, there is no guarantee and no certainty that the current system of global and regional security is able to protect us from upheavals. This system has become seriously weakened, fragmented and deformed. The international and regional political, economic, and cultural cooperation organisations are also going through difficult times. » This assessment could have been made as early as in 2003, when the United States by-passed the decision of the Security Council in order to invade Iraq. Then, comparing the present situation with the one prevailing in 1945, he formulates the necessity to adopt a system of international relations which would allow for some form of regulation of the interests of the powers. One harks back to a « Westphalian » world, meaning, one ruled by rules, but whose very origin is in the existence of nation-states: The main thing is that this system needs to develop, and despite its various shortcomings, needs to at least be capable of keeping the world’s current problems within certain limits and regulating the intensity of the natural competition between countries. It is my conviction that we could not take this mechanism of checks and balances that we built over the last decades, sometimes with such effort and difficulty, and simply tear it apart without building anything in its place. Otherwise we would be left with no instruments other than brute force.” One sees here expressed the fear of a world devoid of rules, indeed laid open to what Vladimir Putin calls « brute force ».

This situation derives of course from the conditions of the end of the Cold War. Instead of leading to a stable framework recognized by all, the end of the Cold War has given to one country, the United States, an illusion of almightiness. I have described in a work published in 2008 the consequences of this illusion[3]. I also assessed the imperative necessity to rebuild a framework for international law, an assessment which rested on another: namely that such a reconstruction could only proceed from the States and from a sanctuarisation of the latter. But the absolute opposite has happened. We have proceeded on the slope of the destruction of the rules and of International Law, particularly in 2011 when the Western countries “interpreted” in a unilateral way their United Nations mandate in order to wage a true war of aggression against Libya. Vladimir Putin follows thus: « Pardon the analogy, but this is the way nouveaux riches behave when they suddenly end up with a great fortune, in this case, in the shape of world leadership and domination. Instead of managing their wealth wisely, for their own benefit too of course, I think they have committed many follies. We have entered a period of differing interpretations and deliberate silences in world politics. International law has been forced to retreat over and over by the onslaught of legal nihilism. Objectivity and justice have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Arbitrary interpretations and biased assessments have replaced legal norms.”

But, and of this the Russian President is well aware, reconstructing a framework of international law is a long-term undertaking, which will imply important conflicts, some of which will by necessity be military conflicts. If, within the framework of “Westphalian” law, the sovereignty of the states must imperatively be respected, an important addition was made in 1945, in the Charter of the United Nations, concerning the freedom of peoples to decide for themselves, and on the referendum processes deciding on self-determination. In his speech, it is clear that this is also the principle to which Vladimir Putin is referring, because of its implementation concerning Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Putting Russia in a position to face the new international situation.

It has not been remarked enough that, from this analysis of the international situation, there proceeds a program for Russia itself.

American might has been perceived since 2003-2004 as a direct threat concerning the security of Russia, and that of its strategic allies. This perception brutally amplified beginning in 2011, but it also underwent a change. If, up to then, the Russian leaders were holding on to the hope of a balanced cooperation, which the countries could have ended up achieving, it seems that at present they are assessing American action as aiming at what they call “world leadership.” Vladimir Putin has been lead to go farther than he had imagined in 2000-2001 or even in 2007. But his action, even if it has been reactive as much as active, has contributed to the failure of the American project and to a re-dealing of cards. From this point of view, the return of Russia has been a significant event. Russia has some arguments to put forward in favor of the constitution of a large “front” of countries refusing American hegemony.

The political vision of the international environment of Vladimir Putin and of his advisers is today clearly more pessimistic than the one they could formulate when they arrived in power in 2000 and this will have a fallout for Russia itself, concerning the organization of the capitalist « model » which is bound to develop in the coming years. This pessimism incites the Russian power to wish for a rapid rehabilitation of technological and industrial capacities in the sector of industries with a strong technological component, and of weaponry. Economic policy becomes determined in part by the analysis of the international situation. Which justifies a reinforcement of the interventionist approach in the economy through the constitution of large public companies in the energy sector (Gazprom, Rosneft, Transneft), but also of publically capitalized groups in aviation, naval construction and non-ferrous metals. The return to some supple forms of protectionism is inevitable. The question of a possible regimen of controls of capitals, never mind the declarations of the government and of the Central Bank, is on the table. One cannot well imagine that Russia could find itself in a protracted confrontation with the United States while remaining open to the totality of financial fluxes, in particular those of the short or very short term. International cooperation is a necessity, and conceived as such. It stands at the crossroads between geopolitical alliances and technological and industrial complementarity. If Russia wished for the constitution of a counterweight to an American influence which it presently analyses as hostile, the impact of this counterweight will not be the same according to the countries in consideration.

It is clear therefore that the events of the last months will provoke a radical change in the model of development which Russia had adopted in the years 2000 to 2004, a model which despite everything gave plenty of room to international cooperation and international exchanges. Assuredly, Russia will not close itself up hermetically. Anyway, this has never been the case in its history, even during the Stalinian period of the USSR. But this will imply important readjustments in the nature of economic relations with its western partners, as we have already had the occasion to evoke in this carnet, as well as important readjustments in the domain of interior economic policy.


[1] The original text (in Russian) can be consulted at the following address :  http://kremlin.ru/news/46860. For the English translation: http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/23137

[2] See the declaration of the Russian President at the Conference on Security which was held in Munich on February 10th, 2007. English translation : http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2007/02/10/0138_type82912type82914type82917type84779_118123.shtml

[3] Sapir J., Le Nouveau XXIe Siècle, le Seuil, Paris, 2008.


Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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