As Vladimir Putin was finishing his first term in office in 2004, he sought to develop modern channels of communication with the world, especially the West. That is why the Valdai Club was launched, along with its annual conference in which the president would participate. It became one of the main venues where Russia’s leader would address the rest of the world.
From the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, he would spend hours at the conference answering the questions of top Russia experts, talking about the country’s unique democratic development and openness to the world.
What we heard on October 27, at this year’s Valdai event, was a radically different rhetoric. Ahead of the event, presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov promised that people “will read and re-read” Putin’s Valdai speech. This was likely what the president wished would happen, as he finds himself in a moment in history that will define his legacy and in which he certainly believes he is not going to be the loser.
But that was not how many saw his speech. Most of the address was full of complaints about the West, which led some Russia watchers to dismiss it as yet another rant by a bitter leader who is out of touch with reality. But it is important to dig through Putin’s quite direct and at times vulgar rhetoric to understand what his global strategy is. He delivered several messages directed at different audiences, trying to drive one key idea through: it is not about Ukraine, it is about much more than that.
Putin’s main and most popular narrative directed at the international audience is the “end of the unipolar moment” and the “coming of multipolarity”. He has been preaching about it for most of his presidency, picking it up from the writings of Russia’s former prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, the late Yevgeny Primakov.
Unsurprisingly, it dominated much of his speech at Valdai. He accused the West and the United States of triggering crises and sowing chaos around the world, and reiterated his conviction that the rise of other powers necessitates respect for their interests and participation in drawing the rules of how the world is governed.
His key message – directed at other powers like China and India – was that the end of American hegemony should lead to the end of the Western promotion of democracy and institutions of governance, universality of human rights and what has become known as the “liberal world order” in general.
It should also give space for a non-Western financial architecture to emerge – an idea that Russia has been running with for at least a decade. That is already taking place to a certain degree in the form of dedollarisation, but clearly not at the pace that Putin needs to fight the negative consequences of Western sanctions.
The Russian president also addressed the Global South with an updated version of Soviet messaging: that Moscow respects the sovereignty and the right of every nation to “follow its own path”, unlike Western colonial powers which historically have not. He also drew attention to continuing Western economic dominance and exploitation of developing countries through “neocolonial” globalisation.
Putin also did not miss the opportunity to talk about the “ills” of Western societies, seemingly directing his words to those who oppose their governments in the West or disagree with mainstream cultural and societal norms.
He specifically seemed to play on the sentiments of Western conservatives, bringing up “cancel culture” and presenting it as a despotic erasure of what is deemed wrong or no longer tolerable by liberal elites. He spoke about the traditional, Christian core of the Western civilisation, dismissing “strange ideas” like “dozens of genders and gay pride parades”. Putin emphasised that his problem is with the Western “elites” not the people of the West.
The Russian president even tried to appeal to environmentalists, proclaiming that because of conflict with Russia, the West is ignoring climate change.
In a nutshell, he gave everyone in the West, East and South a broad enough reason to think of their own problems and of global crises and to see the war in Ukraine through that prism: it is not about Ukraine; it is about much more.
This is the message Putin and the Kremlin are trying to convey to the world and especially the West – the cost of supporting Ukraine is too much, and its importance – too negligible, when compared with what the world is dealing with. It can be resolved simply with “dialogue on an equal footing”.
Moscow is, of course, playing an important role in stoking these crises: from waging a gas war on the European Union to undermining the United Nations grain deal, curbing Ukrainian wheat exports and exacerbating food shortages in the Global South. The goal is to distract the world from the war in Ukraine, to present it as a small, regional – if not domestic – issue.
Indeed, for those that do not follow the war in Ukraine closely, who do not understand the context and who mistrust the news of war crimes, what Putin is saying may seem reasonable enough. But unfortunately, what he envisions as a “dialogue” or a “solution” is, in fact, a full surrender of Ukraine – the West agreeing to step back and turn a blind eye to the horrors of the Russian war and occupation.
This is the multipolarity Putin is preaching – a world order that enables those that have the power to do what they want and to bend international laws.
And while Putin wants the world to forget Ukraine, he is obsessed with it. For him this is a personal affair; it is about delivering “historical justice” in his Russian imperial understanding of it.