Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet formally declared his intention to seek another term as leader of Russia, but many observers noted that a sweeping speech he gave at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi this week served as a template for his campaign ahead of the March election.
The speech’s overarching theme was to burnish Putin’s accomplishments as the man who restored “power and respect” to Russia. But in doing so, he heaped abuse on the US and its western allies, accusing them of selectively adhering to international law, and of taking advantage of Russia during the 1990s when the country was struggling to rebuild following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bloomberg reported.
He accused the US of abusing Russia’s trust, and seeking to take advantage of the political and economic chaos that persisted for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, according to Russia Today.
“The biggest mistake our country made was that we put too much trust in you; and your mistake was that you saw this trust as a lack of power and you abused it,’’ he said during a question-and-answer session that was carried on national television. What was needed, he said, was “respect.’’
High on Putin’s list of perceived slights was the US’s failure to keep its end of the bargain in a host of international disarmament agreements. He explained that, while Moscow doesn’t plan to exit any existing treaties, he promised an “instant, symmetrical response” if Washington decides to quit first.
He accused the US of slighting Russia by forcing the country to accept international monitors during the implementation of the “megatons to megawatts” program, where the Russian nuclear arsenal was dramatically reduced by converting highly enrichment weapons-grade uranium to lower quality uranium suitable for use in nuclear power plants. Between 1993 and 2013, Russia downblended enriched uranium from the equivalent of about 20,000 of its nuclear warheads into low-enriched uranium to be used as fuel by US power stations.
During this process, Putin said, Russia operated with “unprecedented openness and trust” with as many as 100 US officials entitled to carry out surprise inspections of Russian nuclear facilities.
But in return, the US has repeatedly disregarded the Russian national interest, Putin said.
“What we got in return is well-known – a complete disregard for our national interests, support for separatism in the Caucasus, a circumvention of the UN Security Council, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the invasion of Iraq, and so on. The US must have seen the state of our nuclear weapons and economy and decided to do away with international law.”
He also accused the US of hypocrisy by not adhering to the terms of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that was spearheaded by the US. Russia has destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile and honored its obligations under the treaty, Putin said, while the US has repeatedly pushed back its deadline.
These betrayals are threatening to send the US-Russia relationship back to the 1950s, he said.
“We can’t actively participate in several international treaties, because the US is not doing anything itself. We can’t just do it unilaterally,” said Putin, citing the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, as an example of the US taking advantage.
Last month, Russia declared that all its chemical weapons stockpiles had been disposed of – news that Western media “decided to stay silent on,” according to Putin – while the US has persistently delayed its own destruction schedule, and now plans to complete the process in 2023 at the earliest.
“We destroyed everything, and then our American partners said – ‘Not yet, we don’t have money.’ So, they have a dollar printing press, yet they don’t have money. But we, on the other hand, do?” said Putin with heavy sarcasm.
But Putin’s biggest gripe with US foreign policy relates to George W Bush’s decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 – a decision that was made to pave the way for the construction of a missile defense shield in Europe. The Kremlin has vehemently objected to the missile shield.
“This treaty was the cornerstone of the entire international security framework in the area of strategic weapons. But despite spending years trying to persuade our colleagues otherwise, we weren’t able to hold our partners inside the agreement,” said Putin.
Putin also responded to US President Donald Trump criticisms of another treaty between Russia and the US - the New START treaty signed in 2011. Through 2021, it stipulates that both sides are allowed to have up to 1,550 active nuclear warheads. Trump has criticized the treaty as an example of poor Obama-era dealmaking. Putin has also expressed dissatisfaction with the treaty.
“We are hearing that the other side is also not pleased with New START,” Putin said. “We are not going to quit it. Maybe we are ourselves dissatisfied with certain aspects of it, but there is always an element of compromise. So, we are going to fulfil our obligations.”
Other parts of Putin’s election strategy were also on display during the carefully choreographed session, according to Evgeny Minchenko, a political consultant attending the forum who spoke with Bloomberg. Sharing the stage with Putin in Sochi was Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Ma delivered a motivational speech on the future benefits of technology and offered to “join in the development of the Russian economy.’’
Putin will make a high-profile push to digitize the Russian economy as a key plank in his election campaign, Minchenko said. A second campaign message will be government renewal, replacing longer-serving officials with a younger cadre, both in the administration and regional governorships. Some governors have already been replaced.
“I’m pretty sure Putin is going to run,’’ Minchenko said.
Watch the full speech below: