Defensive Putin accuses West of ignoring Russian red lines

In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his hybrid war against the Western world. However, its annual report speech to Russian ambassadors on November 18 saw Putin in his most mundane and defensive form. The Russian leader’s long list of criticisms and complaints has left the distinct impression that while everything in Russian foreign policy has gone wrong, none of it is in fact his fault.

Unsurprisingly, Putin devoted much of his speech to the war in Ukraine, which he recognized as the Kremlin’s key foreign policy. worry. Less typical was his sharp criticism of the role played by Germany and France in efforts to resolve the conflict. Putin accused Paris and Berlin of “indulging in the current orientation of the Kiev leaders on the dismantling of the [Minsk agreements] which unfortunately drove the talks and the settlement itself into an impasse. “

These comments came shortly after unusually strong wording joint statement published by the French and German foreign ministers who accused Russia of deliberately blocking peace talks and warning of the “serious consequences” if Moscow launched a new military offensive against Ukraine. Clearly, when Germany and France speak out, Putin listens.

The Russian leader then accused the West of having collectively “aggravated the situation by supplying Kiev with modern lethal weapons, by carrying out provocative military exercises in the Black Sea and in other regions close to our borders”. This confirms that arms deliveries to Ukraine make Putin sit down and pay attention.

Putin’s most critical comments have focused on the West’s alleged failure to take Russia’s demands on Ukraine seriously. “Our partners are special in the sense that they have a very, to say the least, superficial approach to our red line warnings,” he complained. Some have interpreted this as an indication of his preparation for an impending escalation in Ukraine. I would say it shows Putin’s reluctant respect for shows of force.

The Russian leader’s remarks on the future of the peace process in Ukraine left the impression that the recent intransigent stance of France and Germany had indeed been effective. In an infamous essay published earlier this year, Putin questioned Ukraine’s right to a state while claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” He consistently refused to speak to President Zelensky and argued that since Ukrainian authorities are Western puppets, it made more sense for Russia to speak directly to the United States, Germany and France. In his speech this week, however, Putin called for a resumption of the Normandy talks, which include Ukraine.

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Putin’s other main target was Belarus. Here, he offered a predictable and misleading summary of recent events, but ultimately adopted a surprisingly conciliatory tone.

The Russian president accused the West of exploiting the current migrant crisis on the EU-Belarus border “as a new cause of tension in a region close to us”, while avoiding any mention that Belarus fabricated any the crisis by importing migrants. , many of which arrive via Russia itself. At the same time, events on the ground indicated that Putin had already conceded defeat on this issue to Poland and the EU, Belarusian security forces reportedly pulled migrants from the border and repatriated the first planes loaded with Iraq.

In perhaps the most surprising part of his speech, Putin acknowledged the existence of internal “problems” in Belarus and said that Russia “certainly supports the dialogue between the authorities and the opposition”. This radical and welcome change of mind was actually quite typical of Putin’s approach to foreign policy. Faced with a superior force, he becomes conciliatory.

For much of his speech, Putin seemed resigned to a continued confrontation with the West. “Regarding European affairs, I must state with regret that the opportunities for cooperation continue to shrink,” he noted. “Although the EU remains our main trade and economic partner, the previously rather productive Russia-EU cooperation is currently experiencing major difficulties. The EU continues to push us back with its sanctions and hostile actions. “

Equally pessimistic was his assessment of NATO ties. “A similar, if not more depressing, situation prevails in our relations with NATO, which has taken a clearly confrontational stance and persists in bringing its military infrastructure closer to our borders.” Putin also spent part of his speech repeating familiar criticisms of NATO expansion.

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The Russian president wished to stress the geopolitical importance of relations with the United States, while deploring the current state of relations. “Russian-American relations, as you know, largely underpin global security and stability. At this point, these relationships, to say the least, are in an unsatisfactory state. Diplomats from both countries are facing major problems. The staff of the embassies has been reduced and the embassies cannot function properly.

Putin blamed the recent reductions in embassy staff on “the provocative policies pursued by the US authorities”, preferring not to mention that Russia had reduced the staff of the US embassy in Moscow from 1,200 to 120. In fact, Putin seemed more concerned with property than people. “Our property in the United States was seized in violation of all international standards and rules, all rules,” he complained.

Despite this rather bleak picture of Russian-American relations, Putin made a positive observation. “Nonetheless, the summit with President Biden in Geneva last June opened up some opportunities for dialogue and gradual alignment, straightening out our relationship, and it is important that both sides systematically expand the agreements reached,” he said. declared. This indicates that the Russian leader views Biden as a potential ally in an otherwise worsening relationship, and will likely be seen as a justification for those who called the Geneva summit an unrepeatable mistake.

I’ve been following Putin’s speeches for two decades, and I don’t remember a speech as humble or defensive as this week’s performance. He has emerged as a man who recognizes that he is destined to lose and seeks to ask for peace. Instead of his usual bellicose rhetoric, Putin spoke of the need to “push for serious long-term guarantees that keep Russia safe.” Apparently, the West has been more effective in demonstrating its resolve than many had previously believed.

While Putin appeared surprisingly weak during his foreign policy speech, it would be unwise to underestimate him. The Russian leader may have given the impression that his numerous offensives have not produced the desired results, but he still has a vast arsenal ranging from conventional and mercenary forces to cyber and energy weapons. Waning powers are notoriously dangerous players on the world stage, and Putin retains a proven capacity for international aggression.

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East .

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Russian Foreign Ministry’s board of directors on November 18. (Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS via REUTERS)


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