Putin points to the Russia of the
future By M K Bhadrakumar
Russian President Vladimir Putin's State
of the Union address last Wednesday, coming within
five days of US Vice President Dick Cheney's
criticizing the Kremlin for its policies toward
the Russian people and the country's smaller
neighbors, naturally invites comparisons.
But that would be a futile exercise -
comparing the incomparable. For one thing, as a
leading American scholar on Russia, Anatol Lieven,
thoughtfully pointed out in a commentary, Putin is
a statesman, whereas Cheney is at best a gifted
politician. Besides, Putin's address needs to be
understood in an altogether different intellectual
What readily comes to mind is
The Russia Hand, Strobe Talbott's
cold-blooded account of the
Bill Clinton presidency - how Washington
incessantly took advantage of Russia's weakness to
extract unilateral advantages out of a bumbling,
confused president Boris Yeltsin. (Talbott's book
is a chilling study of the fate of any state
aspiring to have a relationship of mutual respect
with the US.)
An incident narrated by
Talbott is worth recalling. While jogging along
the birch-lined paths in Lenin Hills in Moscow
suburbs one morning during a visit to Russia,
Clinton told Talbott that as a politician he could
already sense that a lot of alienation, a lot of
anti-American feeling, was building up in
Yeltsin's Russia. The time was April 1996 - hardly
five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Clinton explained: "We haven't played
everything brilliantly with these people; we
haven't figured out how to say yes to them in a
way that balances off how much and how often we
want them to say yes to us. We keep telling Ol'
Boris [Yeltsin], 'Okay, now here's what you've got
to do next - here's some more shit for your
Putin's Russia cannot be
understood unless one surveys the backdrop of the
drift, anarchy and humiliation of the Yeltsin era.
Anyone could sense something profound was stirring
when Putin spent a lot of time last month with an
extraordinary gathering called the first CIS Arts
and Science Communities Forum.
poignancy of the occasion was obvious. It was the
first-ever gathering of scholars and artists and
intellectuals from all over the Commonwealth of
Independent States (CIS) since the Soviet Union's
disintegration - a Soviet Union that had once
undoubtedly scaled heights of cultural and
intellectual development unparalleled in history.
Putin twice spoke.
What was striking was
the lament for the lost decade of the 1990s.
Welcoming the delegates, Putin said on April 14,
"Your road to this significant event has been long
and difficult ... The intellectual and creative
communities were most sensitive to the
difficulties our countries have gone through in
the transition period, and your problems were not
just of a material nature but also arose out of
the future of our peoples and for the historical
and cultural heritage of this immense area of
civilization that is ours. But much has changed
over this time and new opportunities have now
In his closing remarks, Putin
struck an emotional chord: "We've long since lost
the Soviet Union, it would seem, and so one could
ask, what's the point now in worrying about our
common humanitarian space and in lamenting the
common foundation we had built in this area? But
the thing is that this common humanitarian
foundation never did disappear. It is still with
us today and it is more relevant than ever. We
feel a pull toward each other today. Why is this?
What is happening?"
Putin's State of the
Union address on Wednesday in a way built on the
above thoughts. In a nutshell, it signified that
Russia had neared the end of its patient,
comprehensive dismantlement of the Yeltsin-era
system, and was building afresh its own
"fortress". And, in the process, Russia had
exorcised itself of the last bit of delusions of
being ever genuinely accepted as an equal partner
by the West - the United States in particular.
Russia need not aspire for a "common home" beyond
the limits of Eurasia.
therefore did not put Russia's relations with the
US on any special pedestal. (In fact, the speech
equated Russia's relations equally with the US,
China and India - the three countries he chose to
name in the speech.)
It is equally
noteworthy that the speech did not make a single
reference to the Group of Eight, despite its
upcoming summit hosted by Russia at St Petersburg
hardly 10 weeks away. This was a deliberate
Putin wanted to deflate the
Western egoism as manifest among some US
politicians and officials who frequently reminded
Moscow, directly or indirectly, that its G8
membership was an unworthy honor for which it must
remain grateful to Washington. (Talbott explained
that Clinton invited Yeltsin to join leaders of
the Group of Seven so that the Russian leader
would accept "NATO expansion with a smile", while
at the same time, "we'll get more responsible
behavior out of those guys if they're in the
The bulk of Putin's speech was
devoted to the issues concerning the modernization
of Russia's armed forces and a new approach to
defense and foreign policy.
from Putin's remarks here is that first and
foremost, Russia must take full note of the United
States' attempts to lock Russia in another arms
race. In his opinion, the Cold War mentality
toward Russia "and the prejudices inherited from
the era of global confrontation" still prevail.
Putin recalled that the US was set to
introduce nuclear weapons into outer space and was
envisaging the use of intercontinental missiles to
carry non-nuclear warheads. Russia cannot but take
note of the reality that the key disarmament
issues were all but off the international agenda.
Meanwhile, the US was resorting to
unilateralism in international life. "As the
saying goes, the wolf knows whom to eat ... and is
not about to listen to anyone," he said.
Therefore, Russia has no choice but to give
"convincing responses ... to build our home and to
make it strong and well protected".
must not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union,
the mistakes of the Cold War era, either in
politics or in defense strategy. We must not
resolve our defense issues at the expense of
economic and social development. This is a
dead-end road that ultimately leaves a country's
reserves exhausted. There is no future in it."
Putin said Russia would instead resort to
"asymmetrical responses" based on the country's
intellectual resources - by modernizing the armed
forces and making it well trained and
professional, developing new weapon systems, and,
most important, ensuring an overall strategic
balance of forces with the US.
is unrealistic for Moscow to expect from
Washington a relationship based on equality and
mutual respect. The US invariably pursues its own
gut interests. ("How quickly the pathos of the
need to fight for human rights and democracy is
laid aside the moment the need to realize one's
own interests comes to the fore. In the name of
one's own interests, everything is possible, it
turns out, and there are no limits.")
is distinctive about Putin's State of the Union
address speech on the whole is that unlike on
similar occasions when he used to spell out an
"action plan" for his government, this time he in
effect defined the strategic objectives for
Russia's development that will go far beyond his
own term in office. So, what is the Russia of the
future that Putin envisages?
is a Russia that is free from the Yeltsin-era
delusions regarding relations with the US. This
stands comprehensively dismantled; its trammels in
the political, economic, military or social
spheres have been cast aside. Russia has no need
of the Yeltsin era's vacuous liberal rhetoric,
either. Russia will set a course of fundamental
revival, relying paramountly on its own resources,
aimed at making the country capable of
safeguarding its vital interests. This involves
Russia consolidating its national strength -
Russia, in other words, must become a strong state
within its natural habitat of the Eurasian space.
Russia indeed is not required to render
any apology to Washington while setting out its
national priorities. Putin himself set the example
by completely ignoring Cheney's warning to the
Kremlin on good conduct.
Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the
Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years,
with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).