Pavel K. Baev, Russian expert and long-time analyst for The Jamestown Foundation, recently described in detail the atmosphere of psychological absurdity that reigned at the recent Valdai Club conference regarding President Vladimir Putin’s participation and remarks (see EDM, October 31). Yet, in addition to Baev’s precise observations, it seems critical to mention another such meaningful aspect—that is, a sharp increase in the anti-Western rhetoric of the Russian president. This has often been seen in his speeches before, but with the start of his full-scale war against Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric has taken on an increasingly critical tone. Moreover, the impression is becoming ever more apparent that the Russian president is blaming the West for that which is directly his own doing.
Thus, when announcing the start of the “special military operation”—that is, the invasion of an independent country—Putin characterized not himself, but the West as the “aggressor.” He stated that Russia “is not going to occupy Ukrainian territories” (although it nevertheless annexed four regions of Ukraine in September 2022), but the “empire of lies,” for him, is still coming from the West (Kremlin.ru, February 24).
When announcing the “partial mobilization” campaign, Putin stated that the West “unleashed a war against Russia” with Ukraine’s hands tied behind its back in 2014, though all realistic observers remember that it was Russia that annexed Crimea and sent its military emissaries to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine. The Russian president also accused the West of “nuclear blackmail,” as if forgetting that he and the Kremlin have been using the rhetoric of nuclear threats for years (Kremlin.ru, September 21).
Finally, in his speech at the Valdai Club, Putin painted an image of a democratic “multipolar world” that Russia allegedly strives for, whereas the West seeks to keep its “unipolar dictatorship” over the planet (Kremlin.ru, October 27). This attitude resembles a strange, inverted image, similar to that in a distorted mirror. But such assessments are easy to verify by taking an unbiased look at the situation in Russia itself. Can a country support a “multipolar world” if its own internal, federative “multipolarity” is destroyed?
All governors in Russia today are de facto appointed by the Kremlin—their elections are completely formal, as independent candidates are unable to run due to restrictive laws. The regional legislative assemblies also cannot pass any laws that would distinguish one region from another—though this possibility is the criterion for distinguishing a federation from a unitary state.
Moreover, today’s Russia is actually an “inside-out federation”—that is, Moscow has turned federalism from a model of the country’s internal development into an instrument of external, neo-imperial expansion (see EDM, October 6). As such, the Russian regions are turning into merely obedient suppliers of cannon fodder for the Kremlin’s aggressive wars (see EDM, April 20).
Yet, at the same time, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, in an agreement with Putin, was the first to end mobilization in his city (Region.expert, November 1). This is explained by the special, hyper-centralist status of Moscow in Russia; the capital actually plays the role of an imperial metropolis, and the bulk of Russian bureaucracy resides there. In addition, the largest Russian corporations, which extract and appropriate raw materials from the Siberian regions, are concentrated in Moscow. Thus, the standard of living for Muscovites and “provincials” differs significantly (Region.expert, November 3). In fact, this is a clear illustration of the very “unipolar world” for which Putin blames the West but has built a facsimile thereof in his own country.
Even the Soviet leaders did not promulgate such fierce anti-Western rhetoric as Putin. Today, the West is declared as the “”absolute enemy” on a metaphysical level, a “satanic” force. On this, it is significant that the well-known ideologists of a total “geopolitical war” with the West have recently become Kremlin advisers, who are now forming Moscow’s official positions. As one report noted: “Now the lexicon of Dugin and Prokhanov is in the mouth of Putin” (Meduza, November 3). And if their point of view finally wins out, such a war may well move from a “cold” to “hot” phase in the manner of weeks.
How should the West respond to this hostile Kremlin rhetoric? It seems that purely peaceful statements and refutations of Putin’s paranoia are no longer enough. Moreover, the Kremlin interprets calls for peace as a “weakness” in its opponent and would conduct further aggressive policy as a result.
Along with the anti-war and human rights stances, Western politicians could more actively demand that the Kremlin adhere to the principles of federalism proclaimed in the Russian constitution. But today, in complete contradiction to federative principles, Russia’s national republics are culturally suppressed. And in general, all Russian regions have been deprived of normal federative self-government—they cannot freely choose their own authorities and are economically robbed by Moscow corporations on a consistent basis. Western politicians’ support for regionalist movements would certainly be met with a benevolent attitude in these regions and would help break down the anti-Western stereotypes of Kremlin propaganda.
Many in the West still fear that Russia’s decentralization could be fraught with dangerous “instability.” However, as demonstrated in practice, the situation is quite the opposite: Russia begins to pose an extreme danger to the whole world precisely when it becomes a hyper-centralized empire with a messianic ideology. And representatives of many regionalist movements, on the contrary, advocate denuclearization and support the basic principles of international law (see EDM, August 10).
If the inhabitants of various Russian regions see that the West respects their diversity and supports the development of their own civil liberties and self-government, this will demonstrate who is truly a supporter of the “multipolar world” and who simply hides their imperial ambitions behind this rhetoric.