Intentionally or not, the main result of the recent Valdai Club sessions was stating the gap between the West’s overestimated impression about itself and the real state of events in world politics. The non-Western experts representing counties from Argentine to Japan have come up with issues to point out for their American and European counterparts. Remarkably, it was the Russian forum that they chose to exchange the signals.
The Valdai International Discussion Club is becoming the main international forum for security and politics in Eurasia. It sets a good example of what a genuinely international discussion should look like.
Principally respectable, the Club discussions format implies a certain degree of exclusiveness and regard for the points of view introduced by the participants. The latter represent leading experts from the major countries of the world from Argentine and Arab states to India and Japan. And in this multitude the Western mainstream opinion that dominates the global Media is only one voice in the choir of the many rational judgements coming from different parts of the world, and it is at the same time deflecting as a result of discussions with non-West. The American establishment stances are taken into consideration, but are counterbalanced by points of view expressed by prominent international experts of Arab or Latin, Persian or Chinese origin. Thus, the Valdai intellectual bouillabaisse becomes thick in substance and rich in flavor.
In the course of the Discussion Club sessions the participants talked about the consequences of the European crisis in their respective regions. Japanese experts noted that the US for no obvious reason provoked Russia to take retaliatory action in Ukraine, which brought Moscow and China together anew. And now, with its anxiety over the Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, Tokyo views the possibility of a Russian-Chinese bloc shaping as undesirable.
Israel in its turn has found itself in deep disagreement with the US, following the latter’s dialogue with Teheran behind Israelis’ back that was launched because of the successful action of the Islamic State (IS, also – ISIL or ISIS) in Iraq. As for the 5+1 Iran nuclear talks, one of the American experts had to admit that most constructive initiatives come from Moscow. However, bearing in mind the recently imposed sanctions against Russia, it is unclear how these initiatives will be perceived in the future. If this leads to retreats in negotiations with Iran, threats of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear objects will be brought back.
Meanwhile, the Arab experts pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood political defeat in Egypt, which was caused by the military coup backed by the US, proves Al-Qaeda’s idea that Arab dictators may not be discharged peacefully. Consequently, extremism in the region is expected to intensify.
As for the Europeans’ concerns, they do not seriously consider the idea of providing for Ukraine. Europeans believe that it is Russia and the US who will be settling the Ukrainian crisis. At the same time, Germany no longer wishes to play the role of an advocate for the Russian interests in Europe. With her desire to be the EU leader, Angela Merkel is bound to become more US-oriented than the Baltic states and Polish leaders.
An overall analysis of expert discussions reveals that regionalism trend tends to deepen. Each of major countries seeks to ensure peace and security in its own region. And this tendency is the main evidence proving that the American global leadership is not working.
The American experts did not respond to the criticism, and tried to promote their own vision on the issues that caused anxiety of others. According to this vision, the IS is not a global threat. Similarly, the Ukrainian crisis is of local importance and is affecting European security – not the global rules. What made the American experts perplexed was why their counterparts from other countries were so pessimistic in their prognoses about the world order shaped after the Cold War. The Democratic Peace theory of early 1990s, in the view of the American participants, continues to work, yielding results.
As a result, the American and some of the European experts came to the conclusion that in its argument with Russia on the global rules the West will make no concessions, which makes Moscow the one to concede. And since Russia and China cannot claim their equality with the West – they are to admit their subordinate position.
There comes more. The Western experts are studying possible scenarios of a ‘Russian response’ – in case Moscow objects its subordination. They believe that the contemporary Russia has a three-dimensional global power of nuclear and energy capabilities and the weapon of information. The latter can be used to disorganize the world financial system, which is seen as a vulnerability of the West. In an unintended sincerity one of the American experts burst:
‘If Russia was an average country, we would bomb it the way we did with Libya’.
The Valdai discussions demonstrated that not all countries equally feel the necessity to seek joint solutions to the today's world challenges.
There is no consensus between Russia, other non-Western states and the US on defining the processes unfolding on global and regional levels. Cooperation between Russia and the US is now limited on the institutional level with the bilateral Presidential Commission activity on pause and a number of Russian high-level officials in the sanction list. Moscow hopes that the new European Commission members will be less affected by ideologies and, therefore, less aggressive towards Russia. However, soon Latvia will get the chairmanship in the EU, and it has already announced its intention to revive the Eastern Partnership. This means that the European security system will continue to lose its balance, and the problems of global governance will exacerbate.
With this in mind, Russia, nevertheless, calls for cooperation for the sake of common interests. Despite the strictness of his speech during the Valdai discussions, Vladimir Putin appealed for shaping of a ‘new global consensus of the responsible’ and a ‘new edition of interdependency’. In the basis of the European order Moscow sees the commitment to the Helsinki Accords 1975 and the concept of indivisible security in the Euro-Atlantic region. I am convinced that the Russian message and the call for cooperation will be received by the West, but any measures are unlikely to be taken as usual. Notwithstanding the obviously existing demand for strong regional organizations and the need for working out rules for cooperation among them, the West remains too self-concentrated to accurately assess the consequences of this tendency.
The West controls the oldest and most active military organization in the world. Western Media dominate the international information space. This basis allows Western states to neglect criticism they face. However, this frequently leads to what one of the Valdai participants from Europe described as great powers' becoming victims of their own propaganda.
As a matter of fact, Western experts have nothing to say when blamed for destabilizing the Middle East. Many of them admit that the West’s policies are short-range as they depend on the electoral cycles. Opposing Russia is not seen as a strategic goal, and nobody wishes to have Russia as an enemy. Still the West cannot resist the temptation to lecture and reproach Moscow or abstain from supporting ‘young democracies’ wherever they arise. Thus, the traditional pattern of ignoring Russian interests based on the belief of the West’s historical superiority – remains unchanged.
Meanwhile, in the decade to come we are likely to watch the West adjust its self-image in accordance with the real state of events in the world.
This will take a while. In spite of the fact that today two thirds of the world GDP is produced by the non-Western countries, the West will be conceding its leadership gradually because of the high productivity and technological superiority. Therefore the Ukrainian crisis will not be the last one in the friction between the West and Russia. It is important in these conditions that this friction does not reach the point of no return. And this is what my question to President Putin was about – the black swans: may some unexpected negative events bring bilateral relations down to an open conflict? In the climate of unresolved disputes and deep distrust, a submarine collision, an unintended violation of airspace or death of the other country’s civilians in an accident may push the two sides to active confrontation. These conditions create temptation for those interested in a conflict to spur this course of events.
That is why in the short term Russia and the West share at least one goal, which is controlling the degree of the mutual damage and preventing further exacerbation in their relations.
Russian-Iranian relations have a much longer history and in many ways a more nuanced agenda. But if one would coin a concise definition for their current dealings, it could easily be "compelled adversaries, pragmatic pals."
My observations in Washington prove that this is not an immediate objective for the US yet. However, it does not mean, that the Americans will refrain from an opportunity to speed up the fall of the Russian regime if the internal problems cause a social upheaval. Having met with the White House, National Security Council and Pentagon officials, as well as experts on Russia in Washington, I may conclude that the US has certain difficulties formulating a single consistent policy towards Moscow and is, therefore, incapable of conspiring against it.
Russian policies in the Middle East have recently attracted attention, as Moscow has participated in nearly every significant regional initiative. The boost in this activity comes partly because sanctions have imposed certain limits on Russia's policies toward Europe. Moscow is thus compelled to seek better political and economic opportunities in other important regions where it has historically had sound influence.
Russia is also anything but willing to get involved in the Iran-Saudi face-off, let alone the greater Shiite-Sunni showdown in the region. Having no immediate stakes in the struggle but rather long-term interests in the region as a whole, it feels reluctant to recognize the Houthis' rule officially, but it doesn’t give up on the contacts either. Now that everyone is looking for allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), Russia may side with the Houthis, who bear their own grudge against Sunni Islamists.