In our 23 October note on EU-Russia relations, we reported that an opinion poll published by the independent Levada Centre on 21 October found a record number of Russians now see the major Western powers as adversaries. When asked “How do you see the major Western powers (the USA, Germany, Japan, UK, and others), as partners or adversaries of Russia?”, 79% replied as adversaries, with just 8% identifying them as partners. When asked the same question in July 2010, 44% replied “adversaries” and 44% replied “partners”, with 12% saying they were unsure. The point is that it is not just hardline Putinists who believe that the West is challenging Russia’s vital interests – this perception is held just as firmly in moderate circles. Further evidence of this can be seen in the intervention by the last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, who said at the weekend that Putin's speech on 24 October to the Valdai discussion club in Sochi was one of the strongest of his period in power.
There were two key aspects to Putin’s Valdai speech. The first was the strong emphasis that Putin gave to the importance of Russia maintaining an identity that is separate to the West. Putin is profoundly out of sympathy with the Western liberal consensus, which he considers to be a threat not just to Russia, but to Western civilization. He said:
“Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
“The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
“What else but the loss of the ability to self-reproduce could act as the greatest testimony of the moral crisis facing a human society? Today almost all developed nations are no longer able to reproduce themselves, even with the help of migration. Without the values embedded in Christianity and other world religions, without the standards of morality that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. We consider it natural and right to defend these values . One must respect every minority’s right to be different, but the rights of the majority must not be put into question.”
Having put for the case for maintaining Russia’s separate identity in the face of what Putin sees as a suicidal Western liberal consensus, the second key element in Putin’s speech was his return to the argument that the US is undermining the post-Cold War world order. He warned that without the establishment of a new system of global governance the world could collapse into anarchy and chaos, and he called for equal dialogue and respect for Russia's position.
Putin said: “At the same time we see attempts to somehow revive a standardised model of a unipolar world and to blur the institutions of international law and national sovereignty. Such a unipolar, standardised world does not require sovereign states; it requires vassals. In a historical sense this amounts to a rejection of one’s own identity, of the God-given diversity of the world.
“Russia agrees with those who believe that key decisions should be worked out on a collective basis, rather than at the discretion of and in the interests of certain countries or groups of countries. Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply. And we believe that every country, every nation is not exceptional, but unique, original and benefits from equal rights, including the right to independently choose their own development path.”
For us the point that is insufficiently understood in the West, and which has been overlooked in formulating a response to Russia’s recent actions, is how widespread the support for these views is in Russia. It doesn’t matter that some of Putin's criticism of Western society is exaggerated (if anything Western society is becoming less not more tolerant of anything approaching paedophilia) and that some of his criticisms are more true of Russia than the West (it is Russia that has the biggest demographic problem – ‘loss of the ability to self-reproduce’ – with its population in steady decline since 1991). The important point is that the main thrust of Putin’s argument – that Russia needs to stand up to the West to survive and prosper as an independent European/Christian civilization - is highly popular.
We have already quoted the recent Levada poll which found that nearly 80% of Russians see the West as adversaries. Now Gorbachev has come out openly with a strong endorsement of Putin’s views. Asked about Putin’s Valdai speech, Gorbachev told RIA Novosti on Saturday: "The speech was fantastic. I don't think there has been such a speech in all the years of Putin's rule. Perhaps also because the situation demands this. Basically, I agree with all the ideas expressed by him.”
It is not clear that Western policymakers fully understand the strength of animosity that is growing in Russia towards the West.