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Putin at Valdai

Putin at Valdai: Gloomy Prospects for U.S.-Russia Relations

October 19, 2017
RM Staff

President Vladimir Putin showered criticism on the “so-called West,” particularly on Washington, in a speech and question-answer session in Sochi on Oct. 19, leaving foreign-relations analysts in the audience with a rather grim view of the foreseeable future of U.S.-Russia ties. The Russian leader did make a point, however, of blaming the troubled relationship on Congress and President Donald Trump’s predecessors rather than the current administration.

Putin spoke calmly for most of his three or so hours at the Valdai Discussion Club—an annual international gathering of Russia experts, policymakers and journalists—but grew visibly emotional when discussing the Ukraine crisis, showing no readiness for any concessions and blaming the West and pro-Western political forces in Ukraine for both the conflict and the stalemate in implementing the long-stalled Minsk-2 peace accords. In contrast, he was cool and collected when claiming he was not worried about the deployment and training of NATO forces on Russia’s western flank.

In an unusual twist, Putin also repeatedly emphasized his discontent with U.S.-Russian interactions in the area of nuclear security, blaming the U.S. for what he saw as a failure to reciprocate for Russia’s unilateral granting of access to its nuclear weapons facilities in the 1990s. Not only did he reiterate earlier grievances that Washington had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time, but he invoked the perceived one-sidedness of that early cooperation when answering seemingly unrelated questions. One of those concerned Russia’s response if the U.S. declares the American bureaus of state-funded Russian media RT and Sputnik to be “foreign agents” (Putin said the response would be “symmetrical”). This indicates that Americans’ purported betrayal of Russia’s good will on nuclear security is now another official talking point on Russia's list of grievances vis-à-vis the U.S.

The Russian president didn’t face any direct questions on his plans to run for re-election in March and dodged indirect ones, but he did not sound like a man preparing to step down.

His comments concerning the most salient aspects of U.S.-Russian relations are below, paraphrased except for remarks in quotation marks, which are direct speech. The original Russian can be found via this link. The compilation was prepared by RM Staff in Sochi and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Update: The Kremlin's English translation is now available.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • Basic multi-lateral and bilateral agreements are being "devalued." A few hours ago I was told the U.S. president tweeted about U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear issues. This is indeed one of the most important areas of cooperation and the U.S. and Russia bear special responsibility for this on the global arena. In the 1990s several landmark agreements were signed—for example, Nunn-Lugar and the agreement on converting highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU). The first one dealt with material protection, control and accounting (MPC&A), decommissioning of subs, etc. Americans paid 620 inspection visits to the "holy of holies" of Russia’s nuclear weapons complex, including enterprises developing weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The U.S. had access to all secret facilities of that kind in Russia. As part of the HEU/LEU agreement there were 170 more inspection visits by U.S. specialists; they even had American flags up inside some of these top-secret Russian facilities. Five hundred tons of weapons-grade uranium (about the equivalent of 20,000 warheads) were converted into LEU as part of that agreement. This was one of the most significant disarmament achievements in history.
  • The Russian side demonstrated unprecedented openness as part of this endeavor. In response, we got our national interests fully ignored, support for separatism in the Caucasus, use of force that bypassed the U.N. Security Council, for example to bomb Yugoslavia and send troops into Iraq. It is clear why: They saw the state of our nuclear complex, our armed forces, and economy.
  • In the 2000s we saw a new stage of cooperation where we really achieved a partnership of equals with the U.S. This included the 123 Agreement, but that agreement was then suspended. The Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement was being implemented. We fully implemented that deal, while the Americans completed 70 percent of their MOX production plant, and now the U.S. government is requesting funds to shut down construction. Now they want to dilute and bury plutonium rather than turn into MOX, but that violates the spirit and letter of the agreement. The U.S. has not yet ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and we have. They also withdrew from the ABM Treaty. They have yet to destroy all their chemical weapons; they “remain the only and the most powerful possessor of this type of weapon of mass destruction.”
  • We suspended the plutonium disposition agreement because the American side is not doing anything. They did not even warn us that they were violating this treaty. We learned it from the Congressional budget bill.
  • It was humiliating when we let you into our nuclear enterprises, hoping the U.S. would reciprocate. But expecting that was stupid.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • The situation surrounding North Korea is dangerous. Hints and direct threats of a disarming strike create a dangerous situation. What if the North Koreans had hidden something? North Korea should be treated with respect and war-like rhetoric should be abandoned.
  • Russia is fulfilling all UNSC resolutions, but this problem should be solved diplomatically, through dialogue, not arm-twisting. “North Korea should not be backed into a corner.” It is a sovereign state.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • No significant comments.

Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

  • Our greatest mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much, while your mistake is that you took advantage of this, treating it as weakness.
  • We are not worried by U.S./NATO training in Eastern Europe. Let them train. Everything is under control.
  • The challenge posed by the USSR spurred many of the West’s 20th-century achievements: improved living standards, the development of a strong middle class, labor and social reforms, the development of education, guarantees of human rights, including the rights of minorities and women, overcoming racial segregation.
  • The end of the USSR offered a unique opportunity for a genuinely new chapter in history; unfortunately, "Western partners" divided up “the geopolitical legacy of the Soviet Union, grew convinced of their unquestionable rightness,” “declared themselves the winners of the Cold War” and “began openly interfering in the affairs of sovereign states, exporting democracy” like the Soviet leadership tried to export socialism. We encountered a redistribution of spheres of influence and an expansion of NATO. “Two and a half decades have been lost.”
  • We had greater differences in Soviet times, but there was greater respect; no one would pull down flags at Soviet diplomatic institutions.

Missile defense:

  • No significant comments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Is nuclear disarmament possible or not? Yes, it is. Yes, Russia wants full nuclear disarmament and will strive for it. However, modern states are developing new weapons that come close to being equal to nuclear weapons. The destructive power of high-precision weapons is coming close to that of nuclear weapons.
  • The ABM Treaty has been a cornerstone of strategic stability. We are not planning to exit New START.
  • As for the INF Treaty, we have recently heard accusations that Russia is violating it by developing something. Maybe we would have been tempted to do that if we hadn’t developed sea- and air-launched missiles, including the Kalibr. The U.S. has long had such missiles, which made the INF effectively a unilateral disarmament treaty under which the USSR axed land-based missiles. Now we have sea- and air-launched missiles and we feel we’ve simply leveled the playing field. If our American partners want to exit the INF, our response will be “immediate and mirror-like. But we have complied and will continue to comply” with the treaty.

Counter-terrorism:

  • There was full support of separatism in the North Caucasus [on the part of the U.S.] and I know this as ex-director of the FSB.

Conflict in Syria:

  • We will finish off the terrorists in Syria very soon, but the root causes need to be addressed, including lack of education. Therefore, finishing off terrorists will not eliminate the threat. Negotiations between the government and the opposition promise to be very difficult. One idea is to convene a Congress of Peoples of Syria and that could be a step toward a political resolution and then maybe toward a new constitution, though it is too early to talk about that.
  • It is normal that countries’ national interests do not coincide. However, when national interests are advanced at any cost, that leads to harsh conflicts and no problems are solved. Recent examples include events in the Middle East, which has seen coups organized from outside. Some of our counterparts are doing everything they can to ensure there’s permanent chaos in the region; some people still think this chaos can be managed. But the Syrian experience shows that there are alternatives to this overconfident, destructive policy: Russia acts in concert with the legitimate government and other regional powers to fight terrorism. We work with all participants in the Syrian process and respect their interests. Our efforts there generate hope.
  • The Astana negotiations are showing signs of progress. The U.S., though not participating directly, plays an important role. We’ve been in constant contact with our American partners on this; it hasn’t always been easy or conflict-free, but the cooperation overall has been more positive than negative.

Cyber security:

  • No significant comments.

Elections interference:

  • An unprecedented anti-Russia campaign has been launched in the U.S and that campaign has no grounds whatsoever. There is anti-Russian hysteria in the U.S. “Someone lost the election to Mr. Trump, placed all the blame on Russia and launched just unbridled anti-Russia hysteria.”
  • The American people voted for Trump. He won honestly.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant comments.

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant comments.

Sanctions:

  • The recent U.S. sanctions package “clearly aims to squeeze Russia out of European energy markets” and to force Europe to abandon Russian gas for more expensive U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). Obstacles are being put up to new pipelines we are building, including Nordstream-2, even though “such a diversification of logistics is economically efficient, advantageous to Europe, [and] serves to enhance its security.”

Other bilateral issues:

  • We don’t know whether it would have been easier to work with a President Hillary Clinton. President Trump’s unpredictably is in part due to powerful resistance within the country. He is unable to implement his campaign promises. But we will still work with them. The U.S. is a great power, the world’s largest economic and military power, but our trade with them is negligible, unfortunately. We will work with the U.S. no matter what the difficulties, if they want to. If they don’t want to, we won’t.
  • We do have a dialogue with the U.S. on levels of diplomatic, defense and special services in Syria and we achieve results. That experience can be replicated elsewhere.
  • Washington and Moscow should “cross out” the past, turn a new page and move forward on the basis of “mutual respect” as equal partners.
  • Regarding Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik: We have been told many times that it is not democratic to put pressure on mass media. I am at a loss for words to describe what’s happening to Russia Today. International media directly influence politics in many countries, but that’s natural. As for turning the other cheek, recall what we did to open our nuclear enterprises, opening them fully in hopes of being treated as equal partners, but in vain. The Americans saw the state of our nuclear complex and concluded that weak partners’ interests should not be taken into account. Therefore, we will immediately reciprocate for whatever happens to Russian media in the U.S.

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • When asked what the winner of the 2018 presidential election should focus on: We need to make Russia flexible and competitive, including the management of its economy. We need to strengthen our defense and perfect our political system. We don’t even realize what big data is. Just recently, a U.S. company began sending offers of pregnancy-related products to a 14-year old girl; a computer analyzed her internet behavior and came to this conclusion.
  • Revolution is always the result of a deficit of responsibility, both on the part of those who want to preserve the old order and on the part of the revolutionaries. The results of the October 1917 revolution include both the negative and the positive and the two are tightly intertwined. And it’s worth asking: Could change not have been achieved through gradual evolution? Nonetheless, the revolution led to changes worlwide.
  • Asked if a woman can be the next president: “Anything is possible” in Russia.
  • When moderator asked him how the Valdai Club could meet next year if Putin is not president: “It’s time to wrap up.”
  • Expect 2 percent growth of economy, 3 percent inflation—lowest in post-Soviet Russian history.

Defense and aerospace:

  • See "Nuclear arms control" section above.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

No significant comments.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

World order, globalization:

  • The pace of events is so fast that you have to react all the time and quickly. Qualitatively new processes are evolving in all spheres (e.g., technological revolution). Competition for places in the global hierarchy is getting increasingly acute. The speed of change is so great that the scientific-technological factor becomes the crucial one in the military and security spheres and these changes are irreversible.
  • Scientific-technological progress, like robotics, leads to dramatic shifts. How do we ensure employment in the period of automation? Could humans lose control over AI? The importance of science and technology is increasing, acquiring a political character as well. No modern technologies can ensure sustainable development on their own. It has to be accompanied by social responsibility.
  • Growing inequality helps leads millions of people, entire peoples even, that the world is unfair; this in turn leads to radicalization.

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • The situation in Spain is an internal matter for Spain and should be resolved in accordance with Spanish law. But it’s the result of processes lasting for centuries. Why didn’t anyone think about this before? And why was the disintegration of several European states welcomed with glee in years past? It was in part due to political expediencies and a desire to court “the big brother in Washington” that some players unconditionally supported the independence of Kosovo and now, there you go, we have Catalonia. In the view of some of our international colleagues, there are the “right” kind of freedom fighters and there are “separatists.” That’s the double standard. Apologists of globalization once assured us that globalization would lead to fewer conflicts through economic interdependence, but that’s not the case, is it?
  • Recognition of Kosovo has opened a Pandora’s Box.
  • We need to abandon the old agenda and start looking forward, stop looking back. We need an honest conversation by the international community. There’s no alternative to the U.N. The U.N. Security Council veto was designed to avoid conflict among world powers. Reform of the U.N. should be incremental. Regional organizations should act under the aegis of the U.N.

China:

  • On Russian-Chinese relations: Xi and I call each other friends because it reflects our human relationship. The interests of our countries often coincide or are close. We always reach an agreement on any disputable issue and both countries benefit from these agreements.

Ukraine:

  • The ball is in Europe’s court, not Russia’s. It is because of the previous European Commission’s unconstructive position that Ukraine went through a coup. Disturbances emerged and were fully supported by the E.U. and U.S. Both supported forceful seizure of power.
  • Today’s situation in Ukraine is the result of a coup and Europe is guilty because it supported the coup.
  • We signed Minsk-2, but Ukraine is sabotaging that agreement and everyone knows that. I don’t see how the president of Ukraine can implement Minsk-2, but there is no other way, so we will support Minsk-2 and the Normandy format.
  • On restoring Ukraine’s control over its border: Closing the border between eastern Ukraine and Russia before special status is given to Donbass and an amnesty is implemented would lead to a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica. Russia voluntarily gave up territory upon agreeing to the independence of former Soviet republics. We want to have friendly relations with Ukraine. What do you imagine would have happened if the E.U. clinched a deal with Ukraine on free trade that would have turned Ukraine into a free gateway for EU goods into Russia, because Ukraine had free trade with Russia? It is not enough to turn to Russia; pressure should be put on Ukraine.
  • Russia will ease granting of citizenship to one million Ukrainian refugees.
  • Even the most complex knots should be untied rather than cut and that includes Ukraine.

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant comments.

Photo credit: Kremlin press service