Aftershocks from Putin’s State of the Nation address: Russia, China, the US and the return of the ‘balance of power’
March 3, 2018
As the repercussions of President Putin’s State of the Nation address sink in, it is useful to highlight those words in the address which set out Russian thinking on international relations, and which explain Russian actions, including first and foremost the military build up President Putin discussed during the address.
Western orthodoxy about Russia – repeated in endless media articles and position papers – is that Russia is a ‘revisionist’ power, with Putin set on re-creating the USSR and reversing Russia’s ‘defeat’ in the Cold War, and prepared in order to achieve this to overturn the ‘rules based international order’ the US supposedly established following the end of the Second World War.
The Russians do not conceive of themselves in that way at all. Nor do they recognise the above paragraph as an accurate reflection of the current state of international relations.
As the Russians see it, far from Russia being a ‘revisionist’ power, it is Russia which is the prime upholder of the international law and of a ‘rules based international order’, and it is the US which as it seeks to pursue its objective of spreading everywhere ‘liberal democracy’ – something which the Russians see as code for ‘US hegemony’ – is the ‘revisionist’ power.
Far from Russia wanting to recreate the USSR or having globalist or hegemonic ambitions, the Russians see themselves as overwhelmingly focused on their own internal development and in the process of Eurasian construction – ie. in the peaceful and voluntary reintegration of the countries which once formed the USSR – which they are pursuing in cooperation with China.
Claims that the Russians are insulted by US descriptions of Russia as a ‘regional’ as opposed to a ‘global’ power completely miss the point.
The Russians are fully conscious of the limitations of their power, and have no interest in expanding it globally.
Russia does not have a vast ocean going fleet as the US does, and does not have or aspire to have the huge global network of military bases that the US has.
Nor does Russia play the central role in the world economy that the US does.
The Russians have neither the resources nor the wish to challenge the US globally, or to set themselves up as a global competitor to the US, as the USSR once was.
What the Russians want is to be left in peace so that they can sort out their economic and social problems, and so that they can peacefully re-establish the social and economic connections within the territory of the former USSR which were shattered when the USSR fell apart.
Not only does Russia not have the resources or the wish to mimic the US’s global role; it has a pronounced philosophical aversion to doing so.
It is the US not Russia which claims for itself a global role as the ‘exceptional’ country, and it is the US not Russia which exempts itself through its doctrine of ‘exceptionalism’ from observance of the global rules and of international law which are supposed to underpin the entire ‘rules based international order’ which so far from wanting to undermine the Russians value as they see in it the key to peace.
That this is so is shown – the Russians argue – by US disregard for the UN Security Council – whose authority when it suits it the US ignores – by US contempt for state sovereignty – as shown by its regime change/’humanitarian intervention’ and ‘democracy promotion’ policies – by the US’s regime change wars in Iraq and Libya, by the US’s attack in 1999 on Yugoslavia, by the US’s support for the Jihadi insurgency against the legitimate government of Syria, by the US’s constant meddling in the domestic policies of other countries through its support for ‘democracy promotion’ and ‘colour revolution’ strategies in those countries – with Ukraine being for the Russians the outstanding example, and with Russia itself being a clear target – and by the (as the Russians see it) illegal sanctions the US constantly imposes on various countries including Russia in order to coerce those countries to do its bidding.
Russia by contrast does none of these things, and opposes all of them.
Moreover it is the US which the Russians see as constantly encroaching on themselves – not vice versa – through the US’s expansion of NATO into eastern Europe, its instigation of the coup in Ukraine, its continuing meddling in the affairs of Eurasia, its meddling in Russian internal politics, its sanctions policy against Russia, and its siting – contrary to previous treaties and agreements – of ballistic missile interceptors close to Russia’s borders.
What Putin’s address shows is that the Russians have finally given up hope of persuading the US to change its behaviour.
Moreover the address also shows what the Russians believe to be the cause of this (as they see it) US misbehaviour.
This is the disappearance of the geostrategic military balance which existed between the US and the USSR during the Cold War.
With the USSR gone the US – with its huge military superiority over all other countries – felt that it could do as it liked, and sought to leverage its position of military superiority over all other countries to change the world to conform to its ideology and interests.
It follows from this analysis that the Russians believe that the only way that this pattern of US misbehaviour can be ended is through the restoration of the geostrategic military balance which existed between the US and the USSR during the Cold War.
According to this analysis, the Cold War was not properly speaking a ‘war’ at all, but was rather a ‘long peace’, with the USSR because of its military power able to act as the sheet anchor of the international system through its ability to restrain the US, thereby ensuring that the Great Powers respected each other’s interests, thus preserving peace.
By restoring the geostrategic military balance which existed during the Cold War the Russians believe that the US will be put under restraint again, so that the proper functioning of the international system can be restored, and so that countries like Russia and China will be left alone so that they can press ahead in peace with their plans for their social and economic development.
All of this is clearly outlined in President Putin’s State of the Nation address
I should note that we have conducted the work to reinforce Russia’s defence capability within the current arms control agreements; we are not violating anything. I should specifically say that Russia’s growing military strength is not a threat to anyone; we have never had any plans to use this potential for offensive, let alone aggressive goals.
We are not threatening anyone, not going to attack anyone or take away anything from anyone with the threat of weapons. We do not need anything. Just the opposite. I deem it necessary to emphasise (and it is very important) that Russia’s growing military power is a solid guarantee of global peace as this power preserves and will preserve strategic parity and the balance of forces in the world, which, as is known, have been and remain a key factor of international security after WWII and up to the present day.
And to those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia, have introduced restrictions and sanctions that are illegal from the standpoint of international law aiming to restrain our nation’s development, including in the military area, I will say this: everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia.
Now we have to be aware of this reality and be sure that everything I have said today is not a bluff ‒ and it is not a bluff, believe me ‒ and to give it a thought and dismiss those who live in the past and are unable to look into the future, to stop rocking the boat we are all in and which is called the Earth……
…….There is no need to create more threats to the world. Instead, let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilisation. We have been saying this all along. All these proposals are still valid. Russia is ready for this.
Our policies will never be based on claims to exceptionalism. We protect our interests and respect the interests of other countries. We observe international law and believe in the inviolable central role of the UN. These are the principles and approaches that allow us to build strong, friendly and equal relations with the absolute majority of countries.
(bold italics added)
Much Western commentary has sought to contrast the first part of President Putin’s State of the Nation address, which focused on the Russian government’s plans for Russia’s social and economic development, with the second part of President Putin’s State of the Nation address, in which President Putin unveiled Russia’s new weapons systems.
In my opinion this is to misunderstand the address.
In Putin’s mind and in those of other Russian officials the second part of the address is not intended to be a contrast to the first part of the address.
Rather the two parts of the address compliment each other, with the military build up described in the second part of the address making possible the peace and independence Russia needs so that it can carry out the social and economic plans discussed in the first part of the address.
It further follows from this that Putin also does not see his address as a threat to the US.
Putin has no interest in threatening the US, and of course he entertains no ambitions – as the Soviet leaders perhaps once did – of changing the political, economic and social system of the US, and nor of course does anyone else in the Russian government entertain such ambitions either.
However Putin has come to believe that without the restoration of the geostrategic military balance which existed during the Cold War there is no possibility of the US changing its behaviour and taking into account Russia’s opinions and interests, and leaving Russia alone so that Russia can finally go about the task of developing its society and economy in peace.
As such, Russia’s military build up is intended over time – by creating constraints on US behaviour, and by forcing the US to respect and listen to Russia – to create eventually the conditions for what Putin hopes will be a sustained improvement in US-Russian relations based this time on equality and mutual respect.
Will it work? Will the build up of Russia’s strategic weapons really restrain the US and secure world peace? Can Russia achieve the restoration of the geostrategic military balance of the Cold War? Will Russia’s military build up really create the conditions for a sustained improvement in US-Russian relations?
During the detente era of the Cold War a similar Soviet build up did for a time lead to a brief thaw in US-Soviet relations. However it proved short lived because the US ultimately found it conceptually impossible to accept the USSR as an equal partner.
No sooner was the detente framework between the US and the USSR established through a series of agreements painstakingly negotiated between 1963 and 1975, then powerful forces in the US set to work to undermine it. By 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected US President they had largely succeeded in doing so.
What proved impossible to sustain in the binary system of the 1970s, when the USSR was far more powerful than Russia is today, is much less likely to happen today, all the more so as ‘exceptionalist’ thinking is far more dominant in the US today than it was in the 1970s.
Moreover though Russia can certainly afford the cost of sustaining a nuclear arms race – nuclear weapons and specifically the weapons Putin outlined in his State of the Nation address are as Putin says “modestly priced” – experience shows that achieving a proper military balance also requires achieving a balance in conventional forces, where by comparison with the US’s global forces Russia is badly outmatched.
The ace in Russia’s pack is however Russia’s alliance with China to which – along with Russia’s friendly relations with India – Putin pointedly referred in his address
Our comprehensive strategic partnership with the People’s Republic of China is one example. Russia and India also enjoy a special privileged strategic relationship.
(bold italics added)
Note the careful distinction in the nature of Russia’s relations with China and India – whose relations with each other are currently going through a (probably temporary) bad patch – in these words.
With China Russia has a “comprehensive strategic partnership” ie. a de facto alliance. With India Russia has a “special privileged strategic relationship” ie. a close and enduring friendship.
In his State of the Nation address Putin did not speak for China – he has no right to – but it is the Russian-Chinese alliance which as much as – or arguably much more so than – Russia’s strategic weapons build up is changing the world’s geostrategic balance, and which is placing increasing constraints on US behaviour.
Indeed with no sign of any Chinese strategic weapons build up comparable to the one Putin has just announced despite the steady deterioration in US-Chinese relations, it cannot be excluded that there has been some sort of agreement being Beijing and Moscow whereby Moscow counters the US at a strategic nuclear level whilst China concentrates on the far more costly task of challenging US naval supremacy in the Pacific and in the South China Sea.
That would be an obvious way for the two countries to use their “comprehensive strategic partnership” to complement each other by playing to their respective strengths.
Whether a Chinese naval build up in the Pacific, complimenting a Russian strategic weapons build up and a Russian ground forces build up in Europe, will persuade the US to modify its behaviour is another matter. I have to say that I have my doubts.
The US’s Nuclear Posture Review suggests on the contrary a continued commitment to policies intended to perpetuate US dominance, with the emphasis being on detaching Russia from China by increasing pressure upon it.
Having said this, Putin’s State of the Nation address does provide further confirmation of what the US’s Nuclear Posture Review has already admitted: the US’s ‘unipolar moment’ is over.
Great Power competition has returned and with it the concept of the ‘balance of power’.
Before long I expect we will also be hearing about ‘spheres of influence’ again.
Depending on what happens next in the Pacific region, this may also be the moment when the Russian-Chinese alliance finally starts to come out of the shadows.
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