The Timeline to the War in Ukraine, 2022: Putin’s Valdai Discussion Club, October 2021

By Robbin Laird

The 18th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, held in Sochi, saw President Putin give his address on October 22, 2021.

At these meetings, Putin provides his view of the world and of current events.

The narrative he has crafted and delivered during these events has been quite clear.

The message: The collapse of the Soviet Union was a global catastrophe and setback. The Americans took advantage of this collapse to try and become a hegemonic power. But their efforts have failed and the world is in the process of transition to a new balance of power, one in which Russia has its rightful pace.

As Putin commented about these developments:

A search for a new balance, sustainable relations in the social, political, economic, cultural and military areas and support for the world system was launched at that time. We were looking for this support but must say that we did not find it, at least so far. Meanwhile, those who felt like the winners after the end of the Cold War (we have also spoken about this many times) and thought they climbed Mount Olympus soon discovered that the ground was falling away underneath even there, and this time it was their turn, and nobody could “stop this fleeting moment” no matter how fair it seemed.

In general, it must have seemed that we adjusted to this continuous inconstancy, unpredictability and permanent state of transition, but this did not happen either.

I would like to add that the transformation that we are seeing and are part of is of a different calibre than the changes that repeatedly occurred in human history, at least those we know about. This is not simply a shift in the balance of forces or scientific and technological breakthroughs, though both are also taking place. Today, we are facing systemic changes in all directions – from the increasingly complicated geophysical condition of our planet to a more paradoxical interpretation of what a human is and what the reasons for his existence are.

At this session, he underscored the continuing conflict within the United States over basic values, up to an including the various conflicts involving sexuality, social justice and national legacies.

These crises were leading to internal contradictions in Western societies and, although he did not put it this way, there is little question that his judgement was the United States was being weakened by deep moral divisions and social conflict. The “progressives” in the United States were likened in their destructive behavior to that of the impact of the Bolsheviks on Russian culture.

The title of the session was the “global shake-up in the 21st century” but the subtitle to this was to be written not in 2021 but in 2022 by Putin.

Putin underscore his perspective as follows:

“We look in amazement at the processes underway in the countries which have been traditionally looked at as the standard-bearers of progress. Of course, the social and cultural shocks that are taking place in the United States and Western Europe are none of our business; we are keeping out of this.

“Some people in the West believe that an aggressive elimination of entire pages from their own history, “reverse discrimination” against the majority in the interests of a minority, and the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of these are the mileposts on the path towards social renewal.

“Listen, I would like to point out once again that they have a right to do this, we are keeping out of this.

“But we would like to ask them to keep out of our business as well. We have a different viewpoint, at least the overwhelming majority of Russian society – it would be more correct to put it this way – has a different opinion on this matter. We believe that we must rely on our own spiritual values, our historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation…..

“The advocates of so-called ‘social progress’ believe they are introducing humanity to some kind of a new and better consciousness. Godspeed, hoist the flags as we say, go right ahead. The only thing that I want to say now is that their prescriptions are not new at all. It may come as a surprise to some people, but Russia has been there already.

“After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks, relying on the dogmas of Marx and Engels, also said that they would change existing ways and customs and not just political and economic ones, but the very notion of human morality and the foundations of a healthy society.

“The destruction of age-old values, religion and relations between people, up to and including the total rejection of family (we had that, too), encouragement to inform on loved ones – all this was proclaimed progress and, by the way, was widely supported around the world back then and was quite fashionable, same as today. By the way, the Bolsheviks were absolutely intolerant of opinions other than theirs.

The Afghan war and its outcome further weakened the United States.

This is how Putin put it: “To put it bluntly, the Western domination of international affairs, which began several centuries ago and, for a short period, was almost absolute in the late 20th century, is giving way to a much more diverse system.

“The attempt after the end of the Cold War to create a global order on the basis of Western domination failed, as we see. The current state of international affairs is a product of that very failure, and we must learn from this.

“Some may wonder, what have we arrived at?

“We have arrived somewhere paradoxical. Just an example: for two decades, the most powerful nation in the world has been conducting military campaigns in two countries that it cannot be compared to by any standard.

“But in the end, it had to wind down operations without achieving a single goal that it had set for itself going in 20 years ago, and to withdraw from these countries causing considerable damage to others and itself. In fact, the situation has worsened dramatically.”

For Putin, Russian values are crucial to protect and enhance in the evolving global situation, one which is shaped by nation states.

And protecting Russian values and protecting the Russian nation state also requires vigilance, such as in the case of the threats  posed from Ukraine by the government in Ukraine.

One of the participants in the conference asked Putin this question about Ukraine:

“You mentioned a Chinese proverb about living in a time of change. Our country has been living like that for almost 30 years now, and the situation is becoming more difficult in anticipation of winter, amid the pandemic, and, I would say, the situation with the Americans.

“A couple of days ago, we had Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visit our country. He brought $60 million worth of weapons and promised us a bright future as a NATO member, figuratively speaking.

“I will note right away that any allegations that NATO is irrelevant because Europe does not agree, are prevarication. One does not need to be a NATO member to have US or British military infrastructure deployed in Ukraine. I believe this process is already underway.

“In your July article on historical unity, you wrote that transforming Ukraine into an anti-Russia country is unacceptable for millions of people. This is true, and opinion polls confirm it. Over 40 percent have good or very good thoughts about Russia. However, this transformation has, in fact, started.

“A rather long and very dangerous, in my opinion, distance in this direction may have already been covered. I think that if this idea with a para-NATO infrastructure continues to be implemented, the process to form what is now a not so stable anti-Russia Ukraine will be cemented for many years to come.

“You wrote in your article that if the process continues unabated, it will pose a serious threat to the Russian state, and this may be fraught with Ukraine losing its statehood. People who oppose this movement are facing reprisals. You are aware that they are trying to put Viktor Medvedchuk in prison based on some outlandish charges.

“How, in your opinion, can this process be stopped? Maybe, you have a timeline for when it might happen? What can be done in this regard at all?”

Putin answered this question about Ukraine in the following manner:

“Consider what happened in the late 1980s – early 1990s (I will not tell the whole story now, although you just made me think about talking more about it), when everyone assured us that an eastward expansion of NATO infrastructure after the unification of Germany was totally out of the question.

“Russia could be absolutely sure of this, at the very least, so they said. But those were public statements. What happened in reality? They lied. And now they challenge us to produce a document that actually said that.

“They expanded NATO once, and then expanded it twice. What are the military-strategic consequences? Their infrastructure is getting closer. What kind of infrastructure? They deployed ABM (anti-missile) systems in Poland and Romania, using Aegis launchers, where Tomahawks can be loaded, strike systems.

“This can be done easily, with the click of a button. Just change the software – and that is it, no one will even notice. Medium and short-range missiles can also be deployed there. Why not? Has anyone even reacted to our statement that we will not deploy this kind of missile in the European part if we produce them, if they tell us that no one will do so from the United States or Europe? No. They never responded.

“But we are adults, we are all adults here. What should we do in this situation?

“The Minister of Defence arrives, who, in fact, opens the doors for Ukraine to NATO. In fact, his statement must and can be interpreted in this way. He says every country has the right to choose. And nobody says no, nobody. Even those Europeans you mentioned. I know, I spoke to them personally.

“But one official is not a security guarantee for Russia – he may be here one day and he might be replaced the next. What will happen then? This is not a security guarantee; it is just a conversation on a given topic. And we are naturally concerned.”

Clearly, Putin was driving towards what he thought was the solution set to the problem as described.

Over the years, we have covered the Valdai meetings and have seen them as good indicators of the evolving situation domestically and globally as seen by Putin and his Administration. Those articles can be found on our companions site, Second Line of Defense.

For example, here is an article written by Richard Weitz and published on SLD on November 23, 2015:

Second Line of Defense had the opportunity to attend this year’s 12th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, where more than one hundred foreign and Russian participants heard President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials and various international experts discussed recent international developments.

Some of the prominent foreign guests included Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, and several ex-Western ambassadors to Russia.

Unsurprisingly, the other Russian government speakers at this week-long conference in late October did not substantially differ in their remarks from those of President Putin, In turn, Putin’s comments this year did not vary in theme from those the Russian president delivered in previous years, though some details were new to address the Russian military intervention in Syria and other recent developments.

Revealingly, Putin described “The global information space” as a battlefield in which views and interpretations are “aggressively imposed on people [and] certain facts are either concealed or manipulated” with enemy imagery common.

Alluding to Western governments, Putin said that, “The authorities in countries that seemed to have always appealed to such values as freedom of speech and the free dissemination of information … are now trying to prevent the spreading of objective information and any opinion that differs from their own.”

In this light, Putin and other Russian government officials use the Valdai Conference and other fora to engage in this information battle.

According to Putin, history shows that peace requires “securing and maintaining” a balance of power, whereas striving for “unilateral domination” lead to international conflict, arms races, and war.

In Moscow’s view, the current international system is unbalanced due to the superior power of the United States, which allegedly has sought to exploit the Soviet Union’s collapse and other developments to expand U.S. power and influence throughout the world in partnership with a few favored allies.

In this characterization, U.S. policies have tried to maintain this favorable balance by preventing the rise of potentially balancing power blocs and forcing foreign governments to follow Washington’s leadership or suffer U.S. efforts to replace them with more pliable regimes.

Putin sees this supposed U.S. strategy as unsuccessful.

He and other Russian government representatives say that U.S. leaders exaggerated their post-Cold War preeminence and, though able to undermining existing global institutions, have proven unable to erect effective security architecture in its place.

Though they tried to remake the world by imposing global rules more favorable to Washington, U.S. policies have mostly produced disorder and instability, to everyone’s detriment, including that of the United States.

Washington will allegedly “use force on any pretext, even just to remind the world who is boss here, without giving a thought about the legitimacy of the use of force and its consequences [and] without solving problems, but only multiplying them.”

At Sochi, Putin reaffirmed his controversial view that the Soviet Union’s collapse represented one of the world’s great tragedies because the disintegration forced millions of Russians to live in a foreign country without their consent (“the Russian people became the world’s biggest divided nation”) and by degrading their socioeconomic and geopolitical status. He also indicated that another regrettable consequence was that the collapse opened the former Soviet states to Western interference in their internal affairs.

Putin blamed the West, especially the United States, for the resulting crises in the region, most recently in Ukraine, which the Russian president saw as a U.S.-led “coup d’état”, Western bankrolling of the regime’s opponents, and the disregard for the country’s constitution and legitimate government as spurring a popular revolt in eastern Ukraine against the new government.

Recalling some of his derogatory remarks about Kazakhstan, Putin warned that further Western interference would be “completely unacceptable in the post-Soviet region, where, to be frank, many former Soviet republics do not yet have traditions of statehood and have not yet developed stable political systems.”  Putin was explicit in including Russia in this category.

“The United States has a law [whose] goal is democratisation of the Russian Federation. Just imagine if we were to write into Russian law that our goal is to democratise the United States, though in principle we could do this,” citing cases when the winner of the most popular votes in a U.S. presidential election failed to capture enough electoral votes to gain a majority in the electoral college, due to what Putin termed a defect in the U.S. Constitution.

According to Putin, the United States cannot succeed in promoting its version of liberal democracy since it has features unique to the American experience.

U.S. visions and values may appeal to Americans, but trying to impose them on other civilizations heedless of national traditions or the right of national sovereignty invariably produces a counter reaction, sometimes a militaristic one in the form of terrorism.

Rather than acknowledge their country’s many defects and show more humility in their actions and modesty in their goals, U.S. leaders, according to Putin, simply adopt a “double standard” that skirts around the defects of the United States and the regimes Washington controls but highlights the faults of Russia and other regimes that Washington dislikes.

Putin attempted to exploit what he saw as gaps between the opinions and values of Americans and those of foreign audiences. This line of argument has made some progress in the case of China and in some developing countries, but now the focus of the Russian information campaign has shifted towards Europe.

For example, Putin expressed understanding for those Europeans alarmed by foreign immigration by enumerating the burdens of the refugees on the receiving countries, including the financial costs of integrating them, and how their presence can provoke “a massive uncontrolled shocking clash of different lifestyles… growing nationalism and intolerance… [and] a permanent conflict in society.”