Richard Butler. Russia.

Jan 5, 2015

Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have been playing loosely in our relations with Russia even thought those relations are quite modest, at least as far as the Russians are concerned. Threatening to ‘shirt-front’ President Putin is not a dignified way to behave with a major nuclear power.

Our recent behaviour towards Russia underlines that prejudices and rhetoric should be put aside. We should focus on evidence, principles and interest.

Major European powers being close to Russia and with far deeper experience of Russian behaviour do not afford themselves the luxury of playing politics the way we have been in recent months.

The Russian position deserves serious consideration. Richard Butler does this in the following article.  It is more lengthy than usual in this blog but the subject does require in depth consideration. And in a holiday period a longer read may be timely. It is a good read.  John Menadue.      



Under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign policy seeks to realize three fundamental objectives:

  1. Rejection of what it assesses has become the post Cold War order, dominated by the interests of the United States;
  1. Insistence on a role and status for Russia in international affairs, as a great power whose participation in and influence over the conduct of those affairs is recognized as essential.
  1. Enter into a new set of political and economic relationships, not western in orientation, and designed to strengthen Russia at home and in the world.

The West’s insistence that Russia is obligated to conform to standards, both domestically and in its international relations, which are set by western policies and western institutions, is viewed by Russia as aggressive and dismissive of Russian interests and values.

Even more striking, in the Russian view, is the flagrant inconsistency of western actions. Russia sees these as having repeatedly violated those same purported standards. The United States invasion of Iraq, and NATO’s action to change the Regime in Libya, without the authorization of the Security Council, are seen as a prime examples of such behavior.

In October, 2014, in a presentation to the Russian International Affairs Council, President Putin spoke directly to Russians concerns about what it sees as imperious behavior:

“ The Cold War ended, but it did not end with the signing of a peace treaty with clear and transparent agreements on respecting existing rules and standards. This created the impression that the so called ‘victors’ in the Cold War had decided to pressure events and to reshape the world to suit their own needs and interests. If the existing system of international relations, international law and checks and balances got in the way of these aims, this system was declared worthless, outdated and in need of immediate demolition” (1)

In his second term as Russian President, Vladimir Putin has constructed  Russian foreign policy, in pursuit of the three fundamental objectives described above.

That he is determined to pursue these objectives is clear, and particularly his refusal to accept a uni-polar world, based on American leadership:

“ Today we are seeing new efforts to fragment the world, draw new dividing lines, put together coalitions not built for something but directed against someone, anyone, create the image of an enemy as was the case during the Cold War years, and obtain the right to this leadership, or diktat… The situation was presented this way during the Cold War… The United States always told its allies: ‘We have a common enemy, a terrible foe, the centre of evil, and we are defending you, our allies, from this foe,and so we have the right to order you around, force you to sacrifice your political and economic interests and pay your share of the costs for this collective defense, but we will be the ones in charge of all it all, of course.’ In short, we see today attempts, in a new and changing world, to reproduce the familiar models of global management, and all this so as to guarantee their (the US’) exceptional position and reap political and economic dividends.” (2)

While Putin’s policy determination is very clear, equally clear are: the divisions within western policy circles on how to respond to these circumstances, including Russia’s refusal to comply with western demands; the disarray within the American polity, and thus external policy formulation; and, the current proliferation of complex international political issues.

What needs to be underlined is that, during the period since the Maidan Revolution in Kiev, a major conflict of interests, between Russia and the United States, has, again, become a key dynamic in international relations.

On the Russian side, key sources of its deep dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in international relations, has included the following:

  1. While significant actions were taken to construct a post Cold War system for common security: Treaty on the reunification of Germany; the Helsinki process on mitigating the Cold War, beginning in 1975 which led to the establishment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1994; the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1977, in which it was declared that “NATO and Russia do not consider themselves to be adversaries”; the US never the less commenced a series of unilateral actions which deeply disturbed Russia. For example; the partition of Yugoslavia and Serbia, the illegal invasion of Iraq, US withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and failure to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the application of the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, passed under the principle of the responsibility to protect, to instead, change the regime in Libya.
  1. In spite of the undertakings given to Russia at the time of the reunification of Germany that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO, the alliance has expanded to the borders of Russia.
  1. The US insistence, at the level of the President that it is “the exceptional country”, which Russia takes as meaning that the US does not feel bound by international law; a view which has some basis in fact.

President Putin addressed the notion of US exceptionalism, among other issues, in his Op-Ed published in the New York Times on September 11th, 2013, responding to President Obama’s address to the Nation on the situation in Syria:

“ I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different’. It’s what makes us exceptional”. It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” (3)

In his address to the Nation on December 4th, 2014, Putin accused the West of extreme hostility to Russia, to the point of attempting to dismember it.


The major western concern about Russian policy and actions has arisen in the context of the crisis in Ukraine. The West has expressed alarm about Russian intervention in the Ukraine, inter alia on the ground that it violates Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, which forbids the ”use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”; and, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, on the basis of a referendum, the legality and authenticity of which was clearly dubious.

These actions are seen as breaching a deeply important principle, widely accepted in Europe, that the agreements reached at the end of the Second World War (the UN charter, the Treaty of Rome), put and end to any alteration of national borders by force.

There were also a series of agreements, some taking a number of years to be reached, which covered a range of post World War II, borders: the Oder-Neisse line between Poland and the GDR, the border between West and East Germany, the Soviet Union and the Baltic States, for example. All of these, together with the question of the status of Berlin were managed between the West and the USSR on what could be called a basis of equal participation.

The situation entered a new phase with the reunification of Germany, in 1991 and the coming to independence of 15 former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, in 1991. The issue of Ukraine’s status as a nuclear weapon state (several thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons had been stationed in Ukraine) and its future security was immediately addressed by it and the depository States of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear Weapons. (US,UK,Russia)

Ukraine decided to repatriate those weapons to Russia, and join the NPT as a Non Nuclear Weapon State. In return, the depository States signed the Budapest Memorandum of 1954 in which they undertook to guarantee Ukraine’s security.

Another important event, consequent upon the dissolution of the USSR, was the assurance given to Soviet President Gorbachev by the United States, that if he agreed to the reunification of Germany and accepted the inclusion of Germany in NATO, the alliance would not move further east than Germany. Gorbachev accepted this.

Clearly, the Budapest Memorandum is now dead, following the events of the past year in Ukraine, and both Russian and Western  intervention in them. In addition, NATO has now been joined by three Former Soviet republics and four States previously members of the Warsaw pact and has, thus, moved well east of Germany, right up to the Russian border. Signficantly, the Ukrainian Parliament, elected in November 2014, immediately expressed support for Ukraine joining NATO.

The situation in Ukraine remains unresolved and continues to be a source of significant dispute between the West and Russia, neither of which are likely to, easily, soften their position. However, it is widely regarded that the likelihood of direct military conflict, war between, NATO for example and Russia, over Ukraine is unlikely.

While there is growing division of opinion within Western circles about the appropriate policy to pursue towards Russia, on sanctions for example, there remains abiding concern about the principle of borders not being able to be changed by force.

It is not clear how far Russia will act to secure its Ukrainian objectives. Putin, appears not to want major armed conflict. It would appear to be far too costly, in every respect, and in any case may not resolve things. But, nor does he want to give up important Russian objectives, including that of not accepting Western authority in determining issues of major importance to Russia. This school of thought posits that his preference will be for a continuation of an unresolved state of dispute, a so called “frozen conflict”, in Ukraine.

Possibly serious sources of restraint upon Putin maintaining conflict with the West over Ukraine are: the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy, the attitude of key Russian stakeholders in that economy, as expressed by them to Putin, what the ordinary people will accept; in other words the impact of sanctions upon standards of living.


The Russian economy is a developing rather than a relatively fully developed one. It was recognition of the failure of the command economy, and that Russia was slipping backwards, that led President Gorbachev to begin significant reforms in the USSR, which then contributed to its dissolution. Putin has declared that dissolution to be  one of history’s great mistakes.

Currently, the World Bank ranks the Russian economy as the world’s ninth largest, by nominal GDP, and sixth largest by purchasing power parity in 2014.

Russia has produced advanced goods, particularly in the aerospace sectors, but it has a widely scattered population, which in both rural and urban settings, includes a substantial portion of people who are poor, by any comparable standard, and live with a parlous level of infrastructure. Its middle class has grown, but the economy is in many respects a classic dual economy, in which those with economic means and those without operate in two very different spaces.

For the latter group, the social support structure of the Communist period, for example free education and health services have largely disappeared. This is of virtually no importance to the small but massively wealthy group of people, the so called oligarchs, who have built private sector economic interests, following the end of what was virtually total State control of the economy. They have done this with the consent of the Government, starting during the period of Boris Yeltsin but continuing under Putin. The extent to which they invest in Russia’s social and economic development is mixed at best.

It is important to note that Russia is not alone in being a dual economy. Many western states share this characteristic. For example, some 18% of the US’ population live below the official poverty line.

The current demographic profile of Russia is of immense importance to its economic prospects. It is assessed that in 1995, Russia entered into “ a black demographic patch” of population decline. The gap between deaths and births was 1 million people. In recent years, Russia’s population has declined by between 0.6-0.7 million, each year. This is attributable to: decreasing fertility rates, increasing mortality rates and population aging. This demographic situation puts pressure on the economy, principally with respect to the availability of labor, but also in terms of the maintenance of demand.

While there is a growing middle class in Russia and overall, standards of living have increased under Putin/Medveydev, serious problems, such as  imposed as a consequence of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, are hitting Russia hard. This is particularly the case with respect to the major source of wealth generation for Russia, its export of hydrocarbons.

The sanctions have led to the cancellation of the South Stream pipeline to deliver gas to Europe. This was at the direction of Brussels and cost Russia $50 billion. Russia has attempted to replace this through a gas delivery agreement with Turkey, of more limited yield and at reduced price.

For the longer term, in October Putin signed a gas delivery agreement with China worth $400 billion. But, it requires substantial investment for its development, the sources of which are not established, and has a lead  time of some 10 years before its impact will be felt in the Russian economy.

Russia’s need of investment is of basic importance and as a consequence of sanctions, the rate of foreign investment has declined substantially, mainly as western banks have become averse to investment in Russia. Moody’s rating Agency has moved Russia to marginally above junk bond status. In addition, capital flight from Russia, disinvestment, has grown to a record level of $85 billion in 2014. Russia was obliged, in December 2014, to make payment of $40 billion to service sovereign debt, in circumstances where national currency reserves are declining.

The inevitable consequences of these trends have occurred: the value of the Ruble has collapsed. During the last year it has lost at least 40% of its value, and price inflation has doubled. The Russian Ministry of Economic Development has estimated, this week, that the economy will contract by 0.8% next year and that both household disposable income and GDP will decline by 2.8%.

Worst of all for Russia’s prospects, the price of oil continues to collapse. It has fallen nearly 50% since June 2014 and may fall further. This is of the deepest importance for Russia as every reduction of $1 in the per- barrel price brings a drop of $2 billion in revenue for Russia.

Possibly symbolic of the pressures upon the economy, as being felt by ordinary people is that buckwheat, a staple of the Russian diet, has doubled in price and in parts of Russia has disappeared from shop shelves. This has, in fact, largely been the result of bad weather but coming at the time of sanctions and price inflation generally, it has possible political implications.

These are significant trends and there are persistent reports that senior figures in the economy, both within Government and in the private sector, are expressing anxiety to President Putin.

On the micro level, daily life is becoming tighter for citizens although one notable consequence of the new circumstances is that many citizens are entering into import replacement; growing, farming, manufacturing domestically, goods and commodities people need, in replacement of formerly imported goods. In some measure, this is a positive development for Russia. President Putin made this point in his address to the nation on December 4th, 2014.

Ironically, in some limited respects, sanctions could prove to be positive for the internal economic and social development of Russia. It would, in fact, be consistent with the overall experience of sanctions in a variety of countries in the past. When large economic interests are targeted, such as Banks, sanctions can prove to be effective, although always mitigated by cheating. But, as far as the bulk of the people are concerned, while sanctions cause pain, people find solutions and they often rally to support their government. This was the case with sanctions in Iraq from 1991 to 1999.

EU sanctions are causing concern to some of its members and they are breaking ranks. Hungary, a member of both EU and NATO has violated EU policy by entering into an agreement with Russia on the construction of a nuclear power plant and, Finland has also signed a nuclear energy development agreement with Russia.

Russia is now working towards replacing some of its significant economic dealings with the West with new relationships in the East and South: the BRICS, established in 2010, (the cooperation agreement between Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) China as a major bilateral partner, Turkey, the Shanghai Cooperation Council, established in 1996, ( Russia, China and four former Soviet Republics in Central Asia) and within its own sphere, the Eurasian Union (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) which will be launched at the beginning of 2015, providing a common market and possibly include the adoption of a common currency. Kyrgizstan is likely to join the Union.

It must be emphasized however, that there will be no early result for Russia in replacing reliance on western markets and western sources of finance. In many respects, the prospect of significantly diminished economic interaction with the main EU States – German industries, UK Banks, could border on a disaster for Russia.

Even so, the possibility remains that the West could lose from Russia’s turn away from it, but to what extent and how seriously this will be taken is yet to be calculated. No calculation is required in predicting that divisions within the West, on relations with Russia, will emerge.

The critical questions that arise in conjunction with the strong relationship between foreign policy and the economy are those of: the balance between policies designed to win approval on a nationalist basis, such as the annexation of Crimea and the price paid for such policies in terms of sanctions and political isolation; and, at what point does the combination of heightened nationalism and the associated resentments of others on the one hand, with rising economic hardship on the other, translate into bellicosity.

Going to war is both intrinsically costly and a stimulus to domestic production but the reasoning or sentiment which comes to prevail can be: We are being treated so badly that there is little to lose from attacking those who have so seriously harmed us, our situation can barely be worse; and we can, by our actions, rectify it and salvage our national self respect.

While this may seem exaggerated, such reasoning is not unknown in history and, it must be said, that the level and style of propaganda currently being deployed in Russia with respect to the West; xenophobic and nationalist, is characteristic of situations which, in the past, led to war.

Clearly, a solution to the situation in Ukraine is needed and attention must be then given to problems within the Russian economy, although obviously this will not include manipulating the price of oil. That is determined by a combination of market forces and OPEC production decisions.

In a paper on: Russia’s Future in the World Order, prepared for the 2014 annual meeting of the Russian International Affairs Council, the scholar Ivan Timofeev observed:

“ The contemporary world order may appear to be paradoxical. On the one hand, we see a steady dynamic of social and economic development. In other words, there is no great shortage of resources that could lead to large-scale conflicts and violent change of the existing order. On the other hand, there are several powers in the world whose political relations and security policies may shake and overturn the world order, Russia is among such powers….. Russia’s position among great powers today is fairly vulnerable. While the country’s political resources are great, these resources are only converted into development in a limited way. The connection between Russia’s global weight and its potential for solving its own social and economic problems is tenuous.” (4)


The sentiment of the Russian people towards the official narrative in Russia is being measured repeatedly. The current form of that narrative is: Russia, led by Putin, has acted to prevent the West and it’s Nazi collaborators in Ukraine from seizing Ukraine; it stood up to them and rescued Crimea; for this and its attempts to defend the Russian people of the Donbas it is being punished with sanctions; Russia, in other ways too, is being treated with unacceptable disrespect; it is a great power and will never accept this; it rejects US attempts at dominance and a world based on proclaimed US leadership and exceptionalism; Russia is building new relationships, such as with the BRICS, the Shanghai Consultative Group, and is forming the Eurasian Union; and these will build a new and fairer global system, with better outcomes for Russia.

The people are told that, consistent with Russia being treated disrespectfully and in bad faith by the West, led by the US, economic punishment will be imposed on ordinary people, at least for a while.

The people are asked to accept this. For now, they are apparently ready  to do so and on the issue of how do you rate the job President Putin is doing, he is presently recording approval ratings in the 80% range.

Putin must be concerned, however, about the views of the small but powerful owners/managers of major Russian private sector corporations. One sign of this has been his banishing, incarcerating, stripping of the power and assets, of senior executives who have been reluctant to comply with his decisions. Although some of his opponents and those who have suffered losses under him, have condemned his policies, his actions seem, for now, to have relieved pressure on him. There have been loyalists willing to step into the positions thus opened up, and presumably the rewards that attach to them.

It is impossible to speculate accurately about whether or when a point will be reached when influential individuals may approach President Putin to explain, perhaps menacingly, that he and his policies can no longer be afforded. But, there have been some signals of this possibility and, it is now officially predicted that Russia is moving into recession.


It is clear from the public discourse in both Russia and US, that cultural and spiritual values, deeply at odds with each other, are in play.

In Russia, the perceived greatness of its long history, the orthodox culture, its spiritual nature, all in their traditional conservative forms, support a powerful nationalism, which Russians will not allow to be trashed. Putin has invoked this with great credibility. Opposed to this is seen the lazy, self- indulgent West, legalizing drugs, tolerating widespread pornography and, approving same-sex marriage. That such people would purport to lead others, tell Russians how to live, is rejected officially.

Putin has drawn significant support from the Russian Orthodox Church leadership. The control over the Church exercised by the State intelligence agencies, during the period of atheistic communism, has not only ended, but Putin has specifically deepened cooperation between the Church and the Kremlin. A number of agreements have been signed between the Church and government ministries on matters of policy, ranging from international relations to public morality.

For example, the Social Affairs Minister has rejected as unthinkable any suggestion that sex education be taught in Russian schools, saying that such teaching would violate traditional Russian values. This is the policy of the Church.

Patriarch Kiril appears prominently at public events with Putin, demonstrating the strength of the relationship with the State. Putin prominently attends important Church services. These actions and Putin’s stated policy of ensuring “ closest cooperation with religious organizations” echoes the earlier Byzantine tradition of common purpose between the State and the Church. This is in sharp contrast to the role in support of reform of government, or even revolution, that was played by the Church, only thirty years ago, in: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and East Germany.

This relationship has at its core, the assertion of Russian national identity and patriotism. Putin’s elemental political identity is that of a staunch nationalist and, to some extent, populist. His attitude towards the Church underlines that identity.

This has specific internal political utility given the challenges to central authority flowing from: the situations in Chechnya and Dagestan, in Russia, and South Ossetia and Abhazia in Georgia, and in Ukraine. Putin seeks to justify Russian actions in these areas of conflict and challenge to Russian authority by reference to notions of cultural as well as territorial and political integrity. The Church has been made basic to that notion of sovereign integrity and Russian-ness.

A major lever deployed by Putin for the exercise of social control, and the formation and expression of opinion, has been his reassertion of strict control of mass media. Media organizations allowed to work are obliged to broadcast government approved news and interpretations. Many go beyond this and create their own narratives, reports, designed to demonstrate their faithfulness to the government and to Russia’s purposes.

Social media is widely utilized by individuals not only for personal messaging but also as an alternative source of information to the official sources. As a consequence, the government has repeatedly sought to restrict the operations, and content of social media.

These circumstances are a cause of serious concern both inside Russia and internationally. It is sensible to recognize, however, that a parallel phenomenon exists in the west, particularly the US, with respect to Russian issues. Censorship and shaping of opinion is clearly carried out much less blatantly in the west, but it occurs, and this is noticed in Russia and viewed as propaganda.

Much of such propaganda is conducted through public media, on both sides, and on both sides it is signaled that there are notions that are clearly not acceptable, within the public discourse. Unfortunately, gross characterizations of “the enemy” are not amongst these, but questioning of the purposes of one’s own Nation are.

The salient point to make here is that, at present, attempts to forge a dialogue based on facts and evidence, freed from a priori national purposes and stereotypes, is struggling. This is typical of situations which, in the past, have spun out of control.


On western policy more broadly, it has three main structural elements: the US, the European Union, and NATO. The basic point about this Troika is that there is internal tension between the three elements.

While the EU has progressively transformed itself into a continent wide supranational institution, with all of the elements of government: legislature, judiciary, bureaucracy, and a range of standard setting Treaties, it experiences on a continual basis substantial tension between members of different weight and outlook. These tensions have been pronounced on the issues of both Ukraine and overall relations with Russia.

It is safe to predict that the EU would split over any suggestion of serious conflict with Russia and indeed, internal questioning of the sanctions policy is continuous. In this context, it is worth recalling that the fundamental motive for the establishment of the EU was to ensure that serious war would never again arise in Europe.

NATO is another matter. It is, in an elemental sense, all about war, deterring it and when necessary waging it, collectively.

The Treaty provides, in it’s 5th article, that an attack on any member will be considered an attack upon all. It’s not clear how seriously this is taken

by Russia. For example, if Russia were to move to protect the Russian speaking population of Estonia, now a NATO member, from suppression by the government in Tallinn, would NATO then attack Russia, pursuant to Article 5?

This introduces the particular role of the US. It is very attached to NATO. It provides its military command and a good deal of the lethal hardware. It conceives of its doctrines. There seems to be a good measure of support for US approaches, as the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales showed, from the UK and the newer, smaller, apparently more insecure States members, but a smaller degree of enthusiasm for its doings from France, for example.

Finland, which remained neutral during the Cold War, is now undergoing a lively debate on whether it should join NATO, in the light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its pattern of military incursions in the Baltic space. Were it to join NATO, the Alliance would again move closer to Russia’s borders.

The relevant point in the present context is, what does Russia think and calculate about this Atlanticist structure? At least one point is clear: As long as this hostile Troika exists, aimed at Russia; the US having withdrawn from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, and refusing to postpone further anti- missile system development, Russia calculates that it will need to maintain an effective array of nuclear weapons, targeted at both Western Europe and the US.

The issue of nuclear weapons is a serious, yet under discussed aspect, of the current stand-off between Russia and the West. The facts are that in violation of policy undertakings and Treaty obligations, both the US and Russia, during the last year have: authorized new nuclear weapons development/renewal, involving massive expenditures and, Treaty obligations for critical nuclear material management, inspections, and missile testing, have been broken.


What are the elements of a new world order or system of governance that Russia appears to want to see replace the present system?

The obvious first priority would be a reduction in the role played by the US. This is, of course, almost exclusively in the hands of the US and it’s very difficult to imagine how this could be brought about from outside the US. The only way the US would moderate its behavior, listen more to others, share authority and decision making, would be if it came to the conclusion, from within, that such action would be in the best interests of the US. Everything we witness from the current state of the US polity, points in precisely the opposite direction.

It could be said of Russia that it is in something of a symmetrical position, especially given the extent to which Putin has played upon nationalist and traditional sentiments within Russia. But there is a difference and it could be important.

What needs to be examined is precisely how much of the current system Russia wants to revise. Its detractors in the US charge that it wants the lot, to dominate, but this would appear to be hyperbole.

What President Putin has said is:

“ The allegations and statements that Russia is trying to establish some sort of empire, encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, are groundless. Russia does not need any kind of special, exclusive place in the world – I want to emphasize this. While respecting the interests of others, we simply want for our own interests to be taken into account and for our position to be respected”. (5)

Statements of a general character, such as this one, are only illuminating to a limited degree. But, it is important that it has been made and can serve as a basis for testing what can be achieved, practically.

For example a key instrument for global governance, in the vital area of peace and security, is the UN Security Council. The community of nations overwhelmingly believes it needs reform. Given the rules of the Charter this cannot happen without the consent of its five permanent members. In practice, this can be narrowed, or at least in the first instance started off by the US and Russia indicating that they are open to change.

That reform has two obvious parts: the constituency is too small and does not reflect the post-colonial and now post Cold War world. A new composition of the membership is needed to make it representative of the contemporary and foreseeable world.  A new decision making methodology is also needed: should there be vetoes, if so, which States should hold them, in what circumstances should they be able to be used?

Perhaps President Putin had something innovative in mind when he said in October 2013;

“ In the light of the fundamental changes in the international environment, the increase in the uncontrollability and various threats, we need a new global consensus of responsible forces. It’s not about some local deals or division of spheres of influence in the spirit of classic diplomacy or somebody’s complete domination. I think that we need a new version of interdependence.” (6)

On the other hand, in his Op-Ed in the New York Times in September 2013, President Putin referred to the Security Council in terms supportive of its present configuration:

“ The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades”. (7)

This is not the position of a person who wants to change the system. Instead it suggests that President Putin is, in fact, not as much concerned about the need to establish systems of governance and cooperation amongst nations that are fit for the purposes of the modern world, but rather that he would simply prefer better outcomes for Russia from the existing system.

He would hardly be alone in such pragmatic thinking; indeed many argue that pragmatism is a good guide. A corollary of this is that Russia’s interests should be addressed pragmatically, not ideologically.

What is glaringly absent from the view Putin expressed in this Op-Ed is the fact that all of the permanent members of the Security Council, including the USSR/Russia have repeatedly abused the system for their own ends, causing a serious collapse in confidence in the system itself. It is this behavior, which a clear majority of Member States of the UN believe, needs to change.


  1. Twenty five years after the end of the Cold War, President Putin says he is convinced that the systems under which international relations and global governance are conducted today, harm and inadequately respect Russia.
  1. He rejects forcefully the triumphalism the US expresses for having “won” the Cold War. In particular, he rejects, indeed seems repulsed by, the notion that the US is the “exceptional country” and what is implied by that notion, particularly, that international law and rules do not apply to the US.
  1. Russia feels threatened by the policies and actions of the Atlanticist institutions: US/EU/NATO. The promises made by them have been serially broken and always in directions that have been regarded as hostile to Russia.
  1. Russia will pursue vigorously the establishment of a new set of political and economic relationships, principally in the East, to the exclusion of the West. President Putin does not seem to have anxieties about what some have called an emerging Pax Sinica, in replacement of the reviled Pax Americana. These relationships will have an almost immediate political effect but they will be slow in delivering prosperity.
  1. The Russian economy faces major challenges, particularly given its demographic profile. These challenges are being substantially expanded as a consequence of the sanctions currently applying to Russia and the sharp drop in the price of oil and the devaluation of the Ruble. The question of how Russia will work through these circumstances, without recourse to international conflict, is a crucial one.
  1. Russia claims it wants to see a revision of the system and framework for the conduct of international relations, which will be fairer and establish a new degree of interdependence. At this stage this is a rhetorical claim, not yet given substance.
  1. It is important to note that much of President Putin’s stated concerns are rejectionist – a list of the things of which Russia disapproves and will not accept. There have been few if any concrete, positive, new proposals by Russia.
  1. A solution to the Ukraine problem is likely to be found, without major war, because that would be too costly and not provide a solution. But, it will not be found without a respectful consideration of Russia’s interests.
  1. If the Russian economy descends into significant hardship and loss, and if this leads to an increase in xenophobic nationalism within Russia, the possibility of recourse to war, for example in Ukraine and Russia’s “near abroad” will grow.
  1. As long as nuclear weapons exist, great care needs to be exercised in threatening the use of force. Neither the US nor Russia have been clear enough about this in the recent period and, indeed, their actions in strengthening and expanding their nuclear weapons systems should be a cause for serious concern.


(1) V Putin: Valdai Speech, Sochi, October 25th, 2014.

(2) V Putin, Op cit.

(3) V Putin: New York Times, September 11th, 2013.

(4) Ivan Timofeev: World Order or Anarchy, Working Paper 18/24, Russian International Affairs Council, October 2014.

(5) V Putin, Op Cit.

(6) V Putin, Op Cit.

(7) V Putin, New York Times, September 11th, 2013.

Richard Butler AC is a former Australian Ambassador to the UN and now distinguished scholar, International Peace and Security at Penn State University.



Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


How often?

Thank you for subscribing!

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


How often?

Thank you for subscribing!