Rather than being obsessed with the U.S. and its budgetary problems born of supporting excessive militarism overseas, Russia desires to have its interests legitimized in the eyes of the West.
I marvel at the certitude many Western observers of Russia and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin maintain about what Putin really thinks or means, despite the evidence of his own words in his speeches and corresponding actions as president on the international stage. One may approve or disapprove of Pres. Putin’s decisions, but it is a fact for anyone caring to investigate it that Russia’s head of state is a careful, systematic, and consistent thinker.
An analysis of his speeches starting from the noteworthy presentation at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy on 10 February 2007 to his Valdai International Discussion Club speech on 19 October 2017 in Sochi, and most recently, to his highly significant State of the Nation speech on 1 March 2018 in Moscow clearly reveals his geopolitical concerns and themes.
Mr. Putin lays out the contours of these concerns in historical perspective and in great detail: He insists that the West treat Russia as an equal; that the U.S. and NATO double-crossed Russia by promising not to incorporate the former Soviet countries into their military alliance, and yet subsequently doing so; that Russia’s interests and security concerns are legitimate; and that the unipolar model of world political affairs promotes less equitable diplomatic relationships than a multipolar one.
Additional concerns of his that stand out in these speeches include the need to denuclearize the world, de-escalate the arms race between the West and East, and resolve differences between countries by peaceful means rather than sanctions and invasions. His speeches’ major themes range from the importance of governmental professionalism and propriety to respect for international law and negotiated agreements.
It is not difficult to grasp what Pres. Putin is concerned about, despite the Western mainstream media’s wholescale attempts to distort his aims and invert his positions. An article by Alexei Bayer of 10 March 2018 in The Globalist titled “Putin’s Goal: Bankrupting America?” presents a striking case in point of twisted logic.ii It projects the U.S.’s drive for world dominance onto Russia, omitting crucial historical background and context that justify why Russia needed to develop a class of super-weapons that would counteract the military threats on its borders. The article’s focus was Putin’s 1 March 2018 State of the Nation speech.iii
I viewed this speech in the original Russian, without the distractions of translation. My takeaways and conclusions on what I heard over the course of the two hours differ considerably from Mr. Bayer’s. Bayer calls the speech “decidedly bellicose”; I would describe it as understated, genuine, and even witty (such as when Putin reassures the audience that, if the West once again develops weapons threatening Russia, “our guys will surely think of something else to thwart them”). Clearly the speech had at least two purposes: to elaborate the state of Russia as its president perceives it, and to serve as an election platform by which eligible voters could judge the goals of Mr. Putin as candidate for the presidency. A third implicit, though obvious goal was to gain the attention of the West, and especially the U.S. This goal coincided perfectly with the other two: To unveil by description and visual simulation projected behind the podium the systems of weapons that Russian scientists and engineers had been developing for over ten years.
Hence the rather strange titling of Mr. Bayer’s article: How on earth could Russia “bankrupt” America, and why would Russia even be interested in achieving such a terrible financial crisis? In its ongoing obsession with Russia and insistence on framing Russia’s actions as negative competition, the U.S. has been doing everything in its power to ruin Russia financially—and thus the title becomes sensational and counter-factual. It is the U.S. that staged the coup in Ukraine (disrupting Russia’s economic agreements with its historically close sister country), imposed wave after wave of economic sanctions on Russian industries and individuals (the latest of them even provoking leaders of the EU who fear a wider impact on their economies), and stirred up anti-Russian sentiments in various countries of Europe that led to more economic difficulties for Russia (such as aggressive competition with Russia for the LNG and oil markets in Europe, and the U.S.’s political pressure on Europe to close the ABLV AS bank of Latvia—with 43.1% of its funds held by Russiansiv).
I remain at a loss concerning how Russia could ever “bankrupt” the U.S. Here is the clever logic offered by the article’s author: By developing a new class of weapons for the purpose of national defense, Russia will provoke the Pentagon into an arms race whose exorbitant expenses will “force Washington to bust its budget.” The U.S. currently supports between 800-1,000 foreign military bases (depending on what one counts), and as a result its military budget has been bloated for many years. The U.S. is perfectly capable of “busting” its budget all by itself. Mr. Putin’s stated reason for the new weapons, made clear in his speech and obvious to anyone who can empathize with Russia’s security concerns, is the Russian government’s exhaustion of its patience, after many years, with the U.S.’s unwillingness to sit down at the negotiating table to listen to and understand these concerns.
Valeria Z. Nollan is a regular contributor to Russia Insider. She is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II. Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia. She recently completed a new biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff.