Putin strikes a conciliatory tone in his World Economic Forum speech but warns of an “all against all” fight if tensions are ignored

Putin strikes a conciliatory tone in his World Economic Forum speech but warns of an “all against all” fight if tensions are ignored
By Ben Aris in Berlin January 28, 2021

With a foreign policy win in his pocket after rapidly agreeing a new START III missile treaty with incoming US President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed up with a conciliatory speech at the World Economic Forum, delivered online on January 27.

“Russia is part of Europe, both geographically and most importantly in a cultural sense. In fact, we’re one civilization,” Putin pleaded with delegates at the forum that is normally held in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. “If we can rise above the problems and get rid of phobias, then a positive phase in our relations awaits. [...] We need to return to a positive agenda, that is Russia’s interest. [...] But one-sided love is impossible.”

At the same time Putin warned that the world could end up in an “all against all” fight if the rising global tensions are not addressed.

“There is every reason to believe that there are risks of further escalating contradictions. These trends can manifest themselves in nearly every field,” Putin said to an online audience of delegates.

“The situation can develop unpredictably and uncontrollably if, of course, nothing is done to prevent this from happening. Moreover, there’s a chance of a real breakdown in global development that’s fraught with a fight of all against all.”

This was the first time Putin had addressed the forum since 2009 that is normally held at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, and he tried to build on the pragmatic approach he appears to be taking as US politics resets itself after four years of US president Donald Trump’s blundering.

Amongst the threads that ran through his speech was that the world has changed and we are dealing with new realities. He argued that Keynesian stimulus doesn't work any more to rejuvenate a stalled economy and that cutting interest rates and making credit cheap and abundant doesn't have much effect any more.

“It’s absolutely clear that the world cannot follow the path of building an economy that works for a million people and even for the ‘golden billion’,” Putin said. “If 20-30 years ago the problem could have been solved by stimulating macroeconomic policies [...] these mechanisms have essentially exhausted themselves.”

Left unsaid, but part of the Kremlin’s constant messages is the days of the G7 domination are over and the G20 is now the pre-eminent forum on the planet. And that the Washington consensus ideology has had its day and Russia and other countries have adopted a statist Moscow consensus alternative, where individual freedoms are secondary to the needs of the state and where the line between business and politics has become blurred.

Putin says that he wants to roll back military spending that has been consuming all the spare cash in the Russian budget since he began modernising the military in 2012 and caused the Russian economy to stagnate.

“We are against spending more money on military efforts,” he told delegates in a speech broadcast live on television. “We have to make international relations less dangerous ... and we must continue with disarmament measures.” Neither side wants a new arms race and Russia can ill afford one, as it needs to redirect its economic resources into re-creating the economic prosperity that it sacrificed in 2012 as social tensions mount and burst into the open in just the last week with the nationwide Navalny demonstrations on January 23.

As a part of this economic drive, Putin is hoping to woo back investors. Those international companies that have already invested into Russia are very happy with their investments and are reinvesting all their profits in expansion. Bond and, more recently, equity investors have also been happy with their investments in Russia, which have paid handsomely, but Putin is keen to expand the circle as part of his economic rejuvenation drive.

“We will keep up the policy of openness to foreign investment,” Putin said. “We are convinced that those who create attractive conditions for global investment today will become the leaders in restoring the world economy.” Putin returned once again to his multipolar trope, emphasising Russia’s participation in the global economic crisis rather than the differences between eastern and western values that his detractors focus on. Much of the speech was dedicated to an analysis of the current economic problems the world faces and what governments can, and are, doing to deal with it.

The world should not depend excessively on a single reserve currency, he said. Instead, he favoured the appearance of several strong reserve currencies with more transparency surrounding their economic policy. Russia has already actively started to settle its international trade using local currencies – an effort its partner China has enthusiastically embraced as well.

He also returned to another meme that has laced his big speeches in the past: the need for international institutions, especially the United Nations (UN), to play a larger role in international affairs. Putin has advocated the UN taking a lead role and becoming the premier forum for setting international disputes – a body where Russia enjoys the privilege of a veto. Putin has also been promoting the G20 as an economic forum, where Russia also enjoys the support of many allies, the BRIC countries first amongst them.

“So that the unipolar world does not become a world of chaos and uncertainty, the system of global regulators based on international law ... must be strengthened,” Putin said. “That is why it is so important to rethink the role of leading international organisations and institutions.” Putin spelled out a dark alternative if things didn't change, where international relations could deteriorate into an “all against all” fight.

He took a swipe at social media companies that have facilitated mass protests in Russia and Belarus with their messaging services, but have more recently got caught up in scandals in the West too, when Twitter cut Trump off from his account.

“These are no longer just economic giants – in some areas they are already de facto competing with states,” said Putin, who has been cracking down on the social media companies in Russia.

Only last week Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has said it will fine social networks such as TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others for not removing what it referred to as “illegal calls” to “participate in unauthorised public events,” referring to the Navalny demonstrations on January 23.

These comments were reminiscent of the warning he gave delegates at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when he warned that the West was provoking Russia, especially with the eastern expansion of NATO, and that Russia would respond if the aggression was not curbed. The comments were ignored and Russia launched a massive campaign to modernise its army four year later.

“The coronavirus [COVID-19] pandemic has become a major challenge to mankind, and it has accelerated structural changes, the preconditions for which were already in place,” he told the delegates to the World Economic Forum.

“We have every reason to believe that the tensions might be aggravated even further,” Putin warned, citing experts that have likened the current state of global affairs to the 1920s and 1930s and that parallels could be drawn between then and now when it comes to the scale and scope of what he called systemic “challenges and potential threats.” He said the crisis had increased social stratification, populism, right- and left-wing radicalism, adding that domestic political processes were becoming more violent.

“In the 20th century, the failure and inability to centrally resolve such issues resulted in the catastrophic World War II. Of course, nowadays such a heated conflict is not possible, I hope that it’s not possible in principle, because it would mean the end of our civilisation. But I would like to reiterate, the situation might develop unpredictably and uncontrollably if we will sit on our hands doing nothing to avoid it. And there is a possibility that we may experience an actual collapse of global development that might result in a fight of all against all.” Putting these comments in the context of the new START III deal signed only a day before, Putin is offering a way out and suggesting that Russia will be a willing partner to any efforts to walk back the rising tensions between East and West that have been growing since the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 started off a battle of sanctions and counter-sanctions.

The comments are also perhaps a warning to the West to show some restraint in the next round of sanctions that is likely to follow the arrest of anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny on January 17.

The EU has not committed itself to sanctions, saying it will wait to see how the Russian courts treat him today and the US administration has been preoccupied with START III but has suggested that “everything is still on the table” when it comes to responding to Navalny detention.

During the Biden-Putin call the Russian president was clearly trying to reach out to the new president, but so far he faces an uphill battle.

For its part, the Kremlin said Putin had noted that a “normalisation of relations between Russia and the US would meet the interests of both countries and, considering their special responsibility for maintaining global security and stability, of the entire international community.”