Time to co-operate? Putin tries to build bridges with the West at Valdai

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, October 24, 2014. © Mikhail Klimentyev
Vladimir Putin wants to be friends with the West. NATO leaders can either accept his olive branch or continue their disastrous policies. The choice is theirs.

The Moscow-Washington impasse is starting to resemble the plot of a screwball romantic comedy. One side wants to cooperate and mend fences, sincerely trying to kiss and make up. The problem is that the other is too stubborn to change its ways, but knows it will probably eventually have to. There are no prizes for guessing which is which.

Barack Obama has a problem. When he took office, almost seven years ago, the US was just about clinging onto the unipolar world it had created after the Cold War. However, a combination of China’s rapid growth, Russia’s re-birth from the ashes of the USSR and the fallout from costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has changed that reality. Vladimir Putin knows this. So does Obama. The latter cannot countenance being remembered as the President who “threw away” US supremacy.

Of course, this also explains why Obama limits his contacts with Russian officials. Last week, he refused to accept a delegation from Moscow, led by Dmitry Medvedev, whom he was formerly close to. Whenever Obama meets Russian government officials these days, American domestic media perceives it as a sign of weakness.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama greet each other before the working summit of heads of state and governments in the "Big Eight". © Michael Klimentyev

Instead of direct engagement, both sides have launched an information war. During the past two and a half years, at a time of chaos in Ukraine and the Middle East, they’ve had one short, late-night bilateral meeting. Instead they speak to each other through the media. Obama likes to spin that Russia is weak. Only two weeks ago CBS host, Steve Kroft, insisted that Putin was challenging his leadership. Obama answered: “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in (to Syria), in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership.

In January, the US President alleged that Russia was isolated and its economy was "in tatters.” Last year, he equated Russia to Ebola and ISIS. The problem for Obama is that especially in Europe, and increasingly in America itself, fewer and fewer people are buying his message.

Battle for hearts and minds

Naturally, there are options here. Instead of the media conflict, Putin and Obama could have a televised debate. Say, two hours long with no notes or Teleprompters. Why not let the public decide? Alas, that’s a tad Simon Cowell. Instead, it’d be better if Obama swallowed his pride and engaged with Putin to hammer out a solution to their differences. This appears to be what Russia’s leader wants.

Every time Vladimir Putin speaks to a foreign audience these days, he speaks of America. Often indirectly. His main concerns are the perceived unipolar world and US hegemony. He’s also very upset about US meddling in sovereign states.

On Thursday, at the Valdai forum, near Sochi, Putin continued a theme he’d espoused at the United Nations General Assembly last month. Whereas in New York, he’d spoken broadly, this time he was far more direct. The President was asking Obama to climb down off his high horse and offering to work together to restore stability to the world.

While Russia has been clear on its Syrian objectives, to secure the Syrian state and fight terrorism, the US has conflicting desires. Putin insisted that Moscow isn’t convinced that America’s primary goal in the Middle East is to crush ISIS. Putin believes that Washington is playing both sides. He invoked the specter of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War-era strategy to condemn US policy.

It’s always hard to play a double game - declare a fight against terrorists but at the same time try to use some of them to move the pieces on the Middle Eastern chessboard in your own favor. There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate. I would like to know what the difference is,” the President said. "They behead gently?” 

What next for the Middle East

The matter of America’s lack of a strategy in the event of the collapse of the Syrian (or Iraqi) state also vexes Putin. “A terrorist organization, the so-called Islamic State, took huge territory under control. Just think about it: if they occupied Damascus or Baghdad, the terrorist gangs could achieve the status of a practically official power; they would create a stronghold for global expansion. Is anyone considering this?” He urged Washington to consider dealing with the problem now. He added: “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) taught me that if a fight is inevitable, you have to hit first.”

The President also touched on an issue which greatly upsets Russians, especially state officials. That is American interference in their domestic affairs. This reached its height back in 2012, when the former US ambassador received fringe opposition figures, just days after his appointment. “The US has a law that concerns Ukraine, but it directly mentions Russia, and this law states that the goal is democratization of Russia. Just imagine if we were to write into Russian law that our goal is to democratize the US…” Putin said.


On the topic of American interference in Russia’s borderlands, the President mused: “we are not worried about democracy coming to our borders, we are worried about military infrastructure (NATO) coming to our borders.” Again, it’s fair to say Putin has been consistent on this subject for a long time.

Back in 2008, he described the alliance’s wooing of Georgia and Ukraine as a “direct threat.” Other key Russian figures, like Mikhail Gorbachev, who is loved in the West, are fully behind Putin’s position. Indeed, Gorbachev has alleged that NATO broke promises made to him in the 1990’s when expanding to former Warsaw Pact states and the Baltic countries.

Amid all this acrimony, Putin then suggested that Moscow and Washington bury the hatchet. “We missed a chance to cooperate at the end of the Cold War, during terrorist attacks of the early 2000s (during George W Bush's first term), let's not miss it again.” With that, Putin opened the door for detente in US-Russian relations. Does Obama have the courage to acquiesce?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.