BEARR Trust Annual Lecture 2019

6 June 2019

“Russia and the ‘no rules’ world of President Putin”

Speaker: Bridget Kendall

This year’s Annual Lecture was once again kindly hosted once again by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), One Exchange Square, London EC2A 2JN on 6 June 2019.

Bridget Kendall joined the BBC in 1983, serving as Moscow correspondent from 1989 to 1995, Washington correspondent from 1994 and diplomatic correspondent from 1998. In 2016 she was elected Master of Peterhouse Cambridge.  She continues to broadcast for the BBC as an external contributor.  She is also a Patron of The BEARR Trust.

The lecture was followed by a reception, allowing for further discussion and networking with others with an interest in the field.

The following is a summary of the talk:

In October 2014, six months after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and a few months after the start of the conflict in the Donbas, Vladimir Putin gave what was described as one of his most important foreign policy speeches to the Valdai conference in Sochi. Headlined The World Order:  New rules or a game without rules?, the President talked of a world of increasing disorder and fragmentation – placing the blame clearly on the West’s triumphalism and failure to take account of Russian interests. Russia was prepared to be a rational actor, said Putin – but if its interests and status were ignored, the crisis in Ukraine would be a harbinger of things to come. 

Putin’s attitude to the international “rules-based system” was the subject of this year’s BEARR Trust Annual Lecture, hosted once again by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It is a topic that Bridget Kendall, this year’s speaker, is ideally placed to analyse. The BBC’s former Diplomatic Correspondent (and a BEARR Patron), Bridget arrived in Moscow in 1989, reporting on the collapse of the Soviet Union. For thirty years, she has been a critical observer of Russia’s changing relations with the West, including conducting two long interviews with Vladimir Putin, broadcast live from inside the Kremlin.

Seen in this longer perspective, Putin’s speech to the Valdai conference presented an evolution of Russian policy, rather than a new turn. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin criticised the United States for what he saw as an elitist and confrontational pursuit of Western interests, including through NATO expansion, the Iraq war and the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. This followed a longer stance of criticism of Western intervention without taking account of Russian interests, going back to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and subsequent recognition of Kosovo.

The Munich speech emphasised deteriorating international security as a result of Western use of power. Not long afterwards, Russia demonstrated its own use of hard power in the 2008 conflict with Georgia. Three features of Russian action in this short war were also important in the much longer confrontations in Ukraine some years later: first, a direct challenge to a government seen as ‘pro-Western’ (and therefore potentially threatening to Russian interests); second, intervention to ensure Russian security in the Black Sea; and third, a willingness to take military action in the name of protecting Russian nationals (in this case in Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Since then, domestic security has become an increasingly important consideration. Protests in Russia in 2011 (at the same time as Western support for regime change at the time of the Arab spring) prompted renewed concerns at the risk of an internal ‘colour revolution’ and were used to justify pressure on potential sources of opposition. Intervention in Ukraine in opposition to the (Western-supported) overthrow of the Yanukovych regime reflected concerns about potential contagion to Russia.

So is Russia operating a ‘game without rules’? Putin’s Valdai speech asserted that the ‘rules’ had been broken by the West in any case, providing a precedent for Russian action in support of its own interests. Actions in Ukraine demonstrate a willingness to use conventional hard power as well as the complex control (or partial control) of local actors in the Donbas to maintain a long-term destabilising influence; more broadly, the sophisticated use of technology in support of disinformation campaigns and disruption to digital infrastructure (for example in Estonia) points to an ability to ‘break rules’ in new ways that are often opaque and deniable. Nevertheless, the Russian government also sometimes claims to be a mediator and upholder of international order, the role that it describes for itself in respect of Syria.

Russia’s use of ‘political technology’ and defence of its interests in the ‘near abroad’ have, over most of Putin’s time in office, been cast as oppositional to the interests and action of the West. But the ‘West’ itself has been challenged, as slow median income growth, relative decline in relation to rising powers such as China, and the rise of populism reduce collective confidence in liberal values and multilateral institutions and approaches. This certainly plays to Putin’s narrative of Western hubris and subsequent decline.

The long term outlook for the current Russian regime is challenging however. Vladimir Putin cannot go on forever, but there is no obvious succession strategy and no clear route for the president to exit with security. The president therefore has to keep control until he is either forced out or can effect some form of transition. This presents inherent risks, since while the government currently appears stable and opposition is apparently contained, Bridget Kendall refers to “a sense of fin de siècle”: while there is a popular aversion to the risks of change, this is not the same as genuine and enthusiastic support for the regime, and successions are hard to control.

Looking to the future, perhaps there are grounds for optimism. ‘Western values’ may be open to challenge – but openness to challenge is a basis for resilience and diversity. The end of communism was associated with a desire to live in a rules-based, open society (even if it didn’t quite work out that way): that aspiration is still there, and potentially rising as increasing incomes (among some sections of the population) come up against a restrictive political system. In the meantime, remembering that ‘the state’ is not the same thing as ‘the people’ is important – demonstrating the value of the non-political, people-to-people contact that is the focus of BEARR’s work.

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