Valdai Discussion Club 20th anniversary: How to develop “Civilization State” in future?

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By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

This year’s Valdai Discussion Forum (October 2-5, 2023) took place at the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Valdai Discussion Club, which was founded 2004 at the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin and leading representatives of Russia and became a leading platform of discussions between eastern and western experts.  In the spirit of the Valdai Discussion Club former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for example as well as Putin pushed in the years after the European energy project North Stream 1 with the  participation of various European energy firms and the Russian firm Gazprom . The project was complemented later with the energy pipeline North Stream II. However as soon as it was finished, it got destroyed in the context of the war in Ukraine. It was a major terrorist operation launched in September 2022, whose perpetrators up to this day have not been identified. Europe has become “hostage” of the Ukraine war since it got economically destroyed as result of the harsh sanctions that were imposed by the US and EU against Russia that targeted  particularly Russia’s energy exports to Europe.

The various panels of Valdai ranged from subjects like “Fair multipolarity: How to ensure security and development of Everyone” to a panel “A world beyond Hegemony: BRICS as a prototype of a new international architecture” as well as a panel about the “Role of nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear war” and a discussion about “Russian Civilization through the Centuries.”

At the final plenary session “Twenty years of Valdai discussions, memories of the future” on Oct 5th  , President Putin took the occasion to resume in his keynote some of the key aspects that had been dealt with at the conference as well as making reference to the New Valdai Club Report, that had been presented at the conference as well.  The President spoke about the “fundamental transformation of the very principles of international relations (…) When we met for the first time at the club’s meeting nearly 20 years ago, our country was entering a new stage in this development. Russia was emerging from an extremely difficult period of convalescence after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. We launched the process of building a new and more just world order energetically and with good will (…) Regrettably our interest in constructive interaction was misunderstood, was seen as obedience, as an agreement that the new world order would be created by those who declared themselves the winners of the Cold War. It was seen as an admission that Russia was ready to follow in other’s wake and not to be guided by our own national interests but by somebody else’s interests.”

The US, he underlined, took course towards hegemony on military affairs, politics, the economy, culture and even morals and values at that time. He called the history of the West that had accumulated a lot of power as result of its colonial policy, “a chronicle of endless expansion,” going along with the problem of “geopolitical interests and arrogance towards others.”

The war in Ukraine was characterized by him as a crisis which is “not a territorial conflict with Russia being the largest country of the world in terms of land area.” The issue would be much broader and center on the “principles underlying the new international order.”  The legacy “us versus them” is a bad legacy of the 20th century, he stated. “The West always needs an enemy to justify military expansion and maintain control within blocs like NATO or other military blocs. They have this approach vis a vis Russia, India, China, Asia, the Arab world and portray the Arab world as an enemy “to portray the Muslim world as hostile environment.”  This bloc based approach would be like a cage of obligations and “to attain their goals they try to replace international law with a “rules based order.” This is manifestation of a “colonial mentality.”  All this talk of “you must”, “you are obliged”, “we are seriously warning you”, Putin qualified as nothing but “colonial era thinking.”

The main principles of Russian foreign policy 

Russia’s foreign policy concept, the Russian President emphasized, is based on the idea that Russia is an “original civilization state”, which is also “the main principle of international order.”

Given the fact that the term “civilization” is a multifaceted concept, that is subject to various interpretations, the President mentioned seven principles which would illustrate his concept of “Civilization State”- Among them:  “There would be many civilizations but none is superior or inferior to one another: the essential characteristics of a civilization state encompass diversity and self -sufficiency. Each state and society tries to develop its own path of development which is rooted in culture and tradition and is steeped in geography and historical experiences, both ancient and modern, as well as values held by its people. (…)  Russia has been shaped over centuries as a nation of diverse cultures, religions, ethnicities. The Russian culture cannot be reduced to a single common denomination, but it cannot be divided either, because it thrives as a single spiritually and culturally rich entity.”

Putin referred to the new “Valdai Discussion Report” that had been presented at the conference under the title “Maturity Certificate, or the Order that never was. Fantasy of Hierarchy-Free Future.” The report, he stated, was offering the Club members an assessment of the processes that lead towards a multipolar world, reshaping international relations, as well as the emergence of new major players and their becoming conscious of the need to depend as little as possible on the existing system controlled by the West primarily in finance and trade.

In a systematic way the report refers to the Russian foreign policy concepts that evolved particularly in the 1990ies- after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  One outspoken advocate for a multipolar world order was according to the authors of the report, former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Yevgeni Primakov, who in 1996 “wrote about the conditions for the final establishment of a “multipolar configuration” as the Valdai Report stresses, “preventing dividing lines in global politics (meaning the creation of new blocs), abandoning the leaders/followers model, democratizing the global economy, and settling international local conflicts.”

As the report further underlines: “This new perspective was enshrined in the Russian- Chinese Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the establishment of a New International Order in 1997.”  Russia and China stated that the future of a global development is directly linked to “multipolarity” which is a “peaceful, stable, fair, and rational new international political and economic order” based on the dominant role of the “United Nations Security Council.” Such an order represents a system of “long term country- to country relations of a new type that are not directed against third countries and aim ‘to strengthen peace worldwide and the common progress of humanity.’” The fundamental norm of the new order include “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, peaceful coexistence , and other universally recognized principle of international law.”

According to the authors of the report which are all leading Valdai Club researchers, Russia’s understanding of ‘multipolarity’ is conceptually differing from that of the United States by emphasizing the interaction of all involved players, rather than “hierarchy” under the guidance of a “Club of the elect.” In a separate chapter “Hierarchy as a dying breed” it is stated that “The new international order will not resemble any that has existed before. The vision of the future international order upholds the value of sovereignty and autonomy in determining development priorities and the means to achieve them. (…) The world of sovereign states which has expanded over the past century, demonstrates remarkable resilience. More precisely, it exhibits a high capacity for ‘self- correction’ in the face of a conflict between traditional centers of power and the complete crumbling of the institutions based international order that occurred.”

What is Russia thriving for?  

In the spirit of this report Putin during his speech stated some of the principles, among them: “We want to live in an open, interconnected world, where no one will ever try to put artificial barriers in the way of people’s communication, their creative fulfilment and prosperity. We need to strive to create an obstacle- free environment(…) We want the world’s diversity to be preserved and serve as the foundation for universal development. It should be prohibited to impose on any country or people how they should live and how they should feel. Only true cultural and civilizational diversity will ensure people’s wellbeing and a balance of interests. (…) The main thing is to free international relation from the ‘bloc approach’ and the ‘legacy of the colonial era’ and the ‘Cold War.’ (…) Everyone should be given access to the benefits of today’s world, and attempts to limit it for any country or people should be considered an act of aggression. (…) We stand for equality, for the diverse potential of all countries. This is a completely objective factor.”

Discussion period

The discussion period was quite intense, featuring among others participants from China, like Chinese Feng Shaolai from the East China Normal University Shanghai who spoke about the upcoming tenth anniversary of the “Belt and Roads” in October in China, to which also Putin has been invited by President Xi Jinping. Putin stressed, as he did in other items, that the “Eurasian development project” and “Belt and Road” Project were “not competing with each other.” He further stated that long before the Ukraine conflict Russia and China had been targeted with sanctions, trade war, including restrictions in logistics. “We are interested in establishing new logistics routes and China is also interested. Our trade is growing”, Putin said. (…) “We are talking about the North -South corridor. China is developing supply chains through Central Asia states.  We are interested in supporting this project and we are building roads and railways toward this end.” In return Russia would export goods to China and China supplies them with goods they need. “We are building logistics and production chains.”  Later in the discussion there was another Chinese and Indian guest who wanted to know more about the perspectives for an expanded BRICS organization as was decided at the South African BRICS + summit.  As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated during a press conference at this year’s Valdai Discussion Forum, the BRICS summit (Aug. 22-24, 23), the East Asia summit in Jakarta (Sept.7, 23) the G 20 summit in New Delhi (Sept. 9-10, 23) and the UN General Assembly High Level week, all these summits showed, that the world is becoming multipolar. Countries are looking for reliable partners. “The expansion of BRICS is the main evidence of this. The five members that the association initially comprised have been joined by another six countries while about 20 countries are also seeking to establish special relations. BRICS is seen as a reliable partner and as a structure that will not disappoint and will help each member feel more confident. This process that we see now is important. We talked about all of this. We also discussed UN reform.”

European voices

From Europe, what was very interesting to note, was the intervention from the side of the well- known British Scholar and Russia expert, Prof. Richard Sakwa (University of Kent.) In reference to the BRICS+ organization and the recent SCO summit, Sakwa pointed to the paradox that “the international politics takes shape within the framework of the international system established in 1945, the United Nations System.” He wanted to know from Putin whether he saw a contradiction between the changes in international politics and the “paralysis” of the UN system, international law, and how Russia could help to overcome this and make the UN working better.  Putin warned that one should not throw the UN -Charter to the dustbin of history without replacing it with something new. Since the worst would be chaos.  He stressed that the UN Security Council should have among its members countries with ever increasing weight in international affairs and a potential that allows them to influence decisions on the key international issues, which they are already doing, Putin said. Countries like India with 1,5 billion people and an economy growing by 7% – a “global giant.” Or Brazil in Latin America with a large population and rapidly growing influence, As well as South Africa. “We should move along the road of permanent and gradual changes.” Putin answered.

The role of nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear war

There also was a fascinating dialogue with the well- known strategic and security expert Prof. Karaganov, whose essays, as Putin underlined, had been carefully studied. Aside his respect for the scholar, Putin when being asked by Karaganov, whether it was not time to change or modify Russia’s nuclear doctrine, since deterrence would not work anymore, responded very clear, pointing out the two reasons that are stipulated in the Russia Military Doctrine for the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia: “The first is the use of nuclear weapons against us, which would entail the so called retaliatory strike. If there are reports that they target the territory of Russian Federation – that happens within seconds, just so that everyone understands- and once we know that Russia has been attacked , we respond to this aggression(…) I want to assure everyone that as of today, this response will be absolutely unacceptable for any potential aggressor, because seconds after we detect the launch of missiles, wherever they are coming from, from any point in the world, ocean or land, the counter strike in response will involve hundreds – hundreds of our missiles in the air, so that no enemy will have a chance to survive. And we can respond in several directions at once. (…) The second reason for the potential use of these weapons is an existential threat to the Russian state- even if conventional weapons are used against Russia- but the very existence of Russia as a state is threatened. These are the two possible reasons for the use of weapons you mentioned.” Putin added  “ I do not see to change our conceptual approaches.

He at the same time qualified that it’s a different matter with the “Nuclear test ban treaty” which Russia signed and ratified – the US signed but didn’t ratify.  That Russia’s effort to develop new strategic weapons is nearing completion. “The latest launch of ‘Burevestnik’ was a success, which is a nuclear -powered cruise missile with a basically unlimited range. By and large also Sarmat- super heavy missile is ready.”

Grand- Son of General De Gaulle intervening

The plenary session finished with an interesting note given by the grand- son of General de Gaulle, Pierre de Gaulle intervened. He presented himself being the chairman of the “Movement International Russophile (MIR) France and Francophonie” stating: “I am a true friend of your country as my family is fighting for the Franco -Russia friendship, and we have got more and more people in France and Europe who have the same belief and the same willingness. As you know the friendship and partnership between France and Russia was one of the pillars of my grandfather’s policy. And I want to rebuild and I want to restore the France of my grandfather, the France made of fundamental values like faith, like patriotism, like family and like true, let’s say, spiritual responsibility, which is completely gone in the occidental world, I believe these fundamental values are essential to build peace and understanding amongst people. Because of this, I think the conflict in Ukraine, is an ideological conflict, that it is even a conflict of civilizations. Because on one side, you have got the occidental world which has lost its soul, and short term view on everything that is sacred.  And history had shown that civilization cannot survive. On the other side, you have got a multipolar world led by Russia, led by China, India, African countries, Arabic countries and South American countries. Those people, those nations are willing to fight for their own traditional and fundamental values. So, to me Mr. President, this conflict is ideological. This is why I think that it will last and expand.”

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