Putin accuses West of ignoring Russia’s red lines

In the past few weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated his hybrid war against the Western world. However, in his annual speech to Russian ambassadors on November 18, Putin was the least inspired and defensive. The long list of criticisms and complaints from the Russian leader left the clear impression that while everything went wrong in Russian foreign policy, none of it is actually his fault.

Unsurprisingly, Putin devoted much of his speech to the war in Ukraine, which he recognized as the Kremlin’s main foreign policy concern. His sharp criticism of the role Germany and France played in resolving the conflict was less typical. Putin accused Paris and Berlin of “the course of the current Kiev leadership to dismantle the [Minsk agreements] which unfortunately led the discussions and the comparison itself to a dead end. “

These comments came shortly after an unusually strong joint statement by French and German foreign ministers accusing Russia of deliberately blocking peace talks and warning of “serious consequences” if Moscow launches a new military offensive against Ukraine. When Germany and France have their say, Putin clearly listens.

The Russian leader then accused the West of “collectively making the situation worse by supplying Kiev with modern deadly weapons and conducting provocative military exercises in the Black Sea and other regions near our borders.” This confirms that arms deliveries to Ukraine have made Putin sit up and take notice.

Putin’s most critical remarks centered on the West’s alleged failure to take Russia’s demands on Ukraine seriously. “Our partners are weird in that they treat our red line warnings very superficially, to say the least,” he complained. Some have interpreted this as an indication of its readiness for an imminent escalation in Ukraine. I would argue that this indicates Putin’s reluctant respect for demonstrations of force.

The remarks made by the Russian leader on the future of the peace process in Ukraine left the impression that the uncompromising stance of France and Germany has actually been successful lately. In an infamous essay published earlier this year, Putin questioned Ukraine’s right to statehood, claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. He has persistently refused to speak to President Zelenskyi, arguing that it makes more sense for Russia to speak directly to the United States, Germany and France because the Ukrainian authorities are Western puppets. However, in his speech this week, Putin called for a revival of the Normandy talks, which include Ukraine.

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Putin’s other focus was Belarus. Here he offered a predictably misleading summary of recent events, but ultimately adopted a surprisingly conciliatory tone.

The Russian President accused the West of using the current migrant crisis on the EU-Belarus border “as a new reason for tension in a region close to us” without mentioning that Belarus created the entire crisis by importing migrants, whereby many travel via Russia itself. At the same time, the events on the ground indicated that Putin had already admitted defeat to Poland and the EU on this issue. Belarusian security forces reportedly removed migrants from the border and returned the first shipments of planes to Iraq.

In perhaps the most surprising part of his speech, Putin acknowledged the existence of domestic “problems” in Belarus and stated that Russia “certainly supports the dialogue between the authorities and the opposition”. This radical and welcome change of heart was actually quite typical of Putin’s foreign policy. When faced with overwhelming odds, he becomes forgiving.

For much of his speech, Putin appeared to have come to terms with the ongoing confrontation with the West. “With regard to European affairs, I am sorry to see that the opportunities for cooperation are becoming ever narrower,” he said. “Even if the EU remains our leading trade and economic partner, the so far very fruitful cooperation between Russia and the EU is currently getting into great difficulties. The EU continues to push us back with its sanctions and unfriendly actions. “

His assessment of NATO relations was just as sober. “A similar, if not even more depressing, situation prevails in our relations with NATO, which is adopting a decidedly confrontational stance and is persistently and demonstratively bringing its military infrastructure closer to our borders.” Putin also spent part of his speech raising well-known complaints about NATO – Repeat extension.

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The Russian President emphasized the geopolitical importance of relations with the US and at the same time deplored the current state of relations. “As you know, Russia-US relations largely underpin global security and stability. At this point, these relationships are in an unsatisfactory state to say the least. Diplomats from both countries have big problems. The embassy staff has been cut and the embassies cannot function properly. “

Putin blamed “the provocative policies of the US authorities” for the recent downsizing at the embassy, ​​preferring not to mention that Russia had reduced the staff at the US embassy in Moscow from 1,200 to 120 people. “Our property in the United States has been seized in violation of all international standards and rules, every single rule,” he complained.

Despite this rather gloomy portrait of Russian-American relations, Putin made a positive observation. “Nevertheless, the summit with President Biden in Geneva last June opened some opportunities for dialogue and gradual alignment, straightened our relations and it is important that both sides consistently develop the agreements reached,” he said. This suggests that Russian leader Biden is seen as a possible ally in an otherwise deteriorating relationship and is likely seen as a justification for those who labeled the Geneva Summit a mistake that should not be repeated.

I have followed Putin’s speeches for two decades and cannot remember a speech as humble or defensive as I did this week. He came across as a man who realizes he is destined to lose and wants to ask for peace. Instead of his usual bellicose rhetoric, Putin spoke of the need to “press for serious long-term guarantees to ensure Russia’s security”. Apparently the West has demonstrated its determination more effectively than many previously believed.

While Putin appeared strikingly weak in his foreign policy address, it would be reckless to underestimate him. The Russian leader may have given the impression that his many offensives did not produce the results he wanted, but he still has a vast arsenal, ranging from conventional and mercenary forces to cyber and energy weapons. Dwindling powers are notoriously dangerous actors on the global scene, and Putin retains his proven ability to act internationally.

Anders Åslund is a Senior Fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in front of the Russian Foreign Ministry on November 18 (Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS via REUTERS)

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