BERLIN – I experienced conflicting emotions as I read Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of a new Cold War in a speech to the Valdai Club of Russia experts. The Russian leader blamed the U.S. for what he sees as the collapse of the global security system and warned America not to mess with Russia.
At many points in the speech, I found myself nodding in agreement — but it’s impossible to buy the entirety of Putin’s message, because he is the wrong messenger.
While the U.S. unilaterally declared itself the winner of the Cold War, Russia never recognized its defeat, even semi-officially: For former President Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet Union’s collapse was a release from the crippling communist ideology that prevented Russia from rejoining the civilized world. To me and many of my friends, that made it a win, not a loss.
As Putin pointed out, the Cold War did not end in any kind of peace treaty. That left the U.S. free to act unilaterally. It hasn’t always used that power wisely. Iraq and Afghanistan hardly are better off after the U.S. interventions, and what Putin calls an “expanding space of chaos” in the Middle East is in part the result of U.S. policies.
The U.S., Putin said, “keeps fighting the results of its own policy, throwing its might at removing self-created risks and paying a growing price for it.” There’s some truth to that.
Putin spoke of politically motivated sanctions undermining liberal, market-based globalization — and indeed, the ill-conceived sanctions against Russia — and Putin’s equally blundering responses to them — create economic distortions that hurt innocent people. In Russia, the sanctions have contributed to currency devaluation and rampant inflation, and in Europe, they will make it harder to rekindle economic growth.
As Putin’s pronouncements so often do, the speech last week was a mix of truth, half-truth and outright lies. It isn’t true, for example, that it was the U.S.’ decision in 2002 to abandon an anti-missile defense treaty with the Soviet Union that led more countries to develop nuclear capacity.
Nor was it the European Union’s decision to do a trade deal with Ukraine that sparked a “civil war with huge casualties.” Putin likes to string facts into dubious chains of cause and effect.
The main problem, however, is with Putin’s attempts to offer an alternative to U.S. dominance. While stating that Russia doesn’t want to be a superpower, he tried to claim moral leadership:
“We do not need to meddle anywhere or command anyone, but keep your hands off of us and don’t pretend to rule the whole world’s destiny. That’s it. And if Russia’s leadership exists or is possible in something, it’s in defending the norms of international law.”
Putin’s Russia could be a major power — it is more fearsome now than at any time since the Soviet Union disappeared. Yet that isn’t the kind of power Putin claims to want. He sees himself as a respected arbiter of global disputes, a moral authority who enforces the rules.
That, however, is a role for which his career makes him singularly unfit. A history of selective justice for political enemies, rigged elections, one of the world’s most expensive and shameless propaganda machines, the fostering of a lazy resource dependency, a group of billionaire friends who keep winning government orders and a personal life that is shrouded in mystery (the only Russian newspaper that dared allege he had a mistress had to close immediately) — none of this allows Putin to pull off a convincing Gandhi impersonation.
These days, it is easy to challenge the U.S. on moral grounds and even easier to accuse it of incompetence in international affairs. Yet a moral leader must do more than that: The best leadership is by example. It’s easy to see why Putin is not much of an inspiration to Ukraine, which has just voted overwhelmingly against pro-Russian political forces.
The U.S. and its European allies didn’t buy these votes: Resisting Putin makes Ukrainians worse-off economically; they are rejecting the kind of repressive, ignorant, cynical society he has built in Russia.
The world may need powers that can challenge the U.S. Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China don’t fit the bill because these are not examples anyone would want to follow. By laying claim to undeserved moral authority, Putin and his ilk are undermining the arguments they make for a more just, more stable international system.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer. Bershidsky was the founding editor of Russia’s top business daily, Vedomosti, a joint project of Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, and the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.