For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been building a narrative of a Russia that was wronged and humiliated by the US until it decided to push back. In his annual major foreign policy speech, to the Valdai International Discussion Club, this narrative took the form of a pitch for a new Russia-centred axis of power that will in large part define the geopolitical battles of Putin’s remaining time in office.
In the 1990s, the storyline goes, Russia opened itself up trustingly to the West, which immediately took advantage of it. As Putin put it this year, “The biggest mistake our country made was that we put too much trust in you; and your mistake was that you saw this trust as weakness and abused it.”
The examples Putin usually gives are the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s expansion despite a promise that it would stay away from Russia’s borders; the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and particularly the recognition of Kosovo’s independence; and the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. The revolutions in post-Soviet countries are given as examples of threatening western “democracy export” to traditional Russian allies and clients. These themes were present in this year’s speech as well, but Putin put more emphasis on a different grievance: Russia’s treatment under the 1990s US-Russian arms reduction programmes.
Under the programme known as “Megatons to Megawatts,” Russia converted 500 metric tonnes of weapons-grade uranium to fuel for nuclear power plants, Russia’s biggest enrichment facility had a permanent US observation post. “Permanent jobs were created directly at the workshops of this combine where the American specialists went to work every day. The rooms they were sitting in at these top-secret Russian facilities had American flags, as is always the case.” Meanwhile, he told the audience, “the United States limited itself to much more modest reductions of its nuclear arsenal, and did so on a purely goodwill basis.”
The Russian openness about its nuclear potential, according to Putin, led the West to push its luck further — to western support for separatism in the Russian Caucasus, the Nato action in Yugoslavia and the Iraq invasion. “This is easy to understand,” Putin said. “Once the condition of the nuclear complex, the armed forces and the economy had been seen, international law appeared to be unnecessary.”
The story of how Russia got nothing but trouble in return for its unprecedented openness in the nuclear domain is spurious. The Megatons to Megawatts programme opened the US uranium market to Russia. Total revenue to Russia from the deal reached $17 billion (Dh62.4 billion), according to Tenex, the foreign trade arm of the state-owned Russian nuclear company, Rosatom. At a time when Russia was recovering from the late-Soviet economic bust, this was a major contribution to the country’s economy. The last of the 500 tonnes of weapons-grade uranium was blended down in 2013, but Russia remains a major uranium exporter to the US. In 2015, the last year for which data are available from the US Energy Information Administration, it supplied 12.9 per cent of all the fuel purchased by the owners of civilian reactors in the US, providing some $267 million in revenue to Rosatom.
Opening the Russian nuclear facilities to US inspectors didn’t make the nation’s arsenal any less fearsome. Russia and the US still have comparable nuclear inventories, and Russia has more nukes deployed than the US. The US didn’t move in Iraq and Yugoslavia because Russia had unilaterally degraded its capability; there was merely no reason for Russia to use nukes to protect Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussain in Iraq. Even today, Putin is not threatening nuclear retaliation for the US support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s opponents in Syria.
Putin, however, is hard to stop when spinning a story: He builds a construct and allows it to acquire a life of its own. In the Valdai speech, Putin’s finishing touch was to claim the West benefited more than Russia from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Communism, he said, “caused a major revaluation of development models, and gave rise to rivalry and competition, the benefits of which, I would say, were mostly reaped by the West. I am referring not only to the geopolitical victories following the Cold War. Many western achievements of the 20th Century were in answer to the challenge posed by the Soviet Union. I am talking about raising living standards, forming a strong middle class, reforming the labour market and the social sphere, promoting education, guaranteeing human rights, including the rights of minorities and women, overcoming racial segregation, which, as you may recall, was a shameful practice in many countries, including the US, a few short decades ago.”
The final blow? When the Communists’ “largely utopian social model” collapsed, the West reaped all the fruit while Russia, which had sacrificed itself to make the world a better place, was forced to retreat.
This is not some niggling accusation concerning a military operation or two or a nuclear inspection trip: Putin appears to be trying to send the West on an existential guilt trip and stoke Russian envy and a sense of victimhood. What’s Putin’s game here? He isn’t seriously expecting a western or US apology for a century of success. Nor is he simply perfecting his narrative for the domestic audience. Russians already know Putin blames the West for Russia’s problems. Further spinning the tale does not necessary add much to Putin’s electoral appeal, such as it is in a country where elections barely matter anymore.
Putin, rather, is making his pitch for a broader, anti-western coalition. He is talking to fellow leaders and elites in countries that are not solidly part of the Russian or western orbits, like some Middle Eastern nations who feel burned by their brief experiment with opening up during the Arab Spring. He’s telling them not to trust the US unless they want to end up humiliated too. He’s telling them that Russia is willing to treat them as equals, willing to intervene quickly if they face internal and external threats as it did for Al Assad in Syria. That’s the meaning of this rather opaque pitch:
“Power is diffuse: its elements are in the hands of states, corporations, public and religious associations, and even individual citizens,” Putin said. “Clearly, harnessing all these elements in a single, effective and manageable architecture is not an easy task. It will take hard, painstaking work to achieve this. And Russia, I will note, is willing to take part in it together with any partners who are interested.”
If Putin’s offer of Russia as an alternative centre of gravity sounds a bit implausible, it’s worth remembering that, just three years ago, so did the largely successful Syria intervention, which has revived Russia’s role as a go-to power in the Middle East. Talk of a pivotal Russian role in tilting last year’s US presidential election only makes Russia look more attractive as a nimble, tech-savvy alternative to the US in the eyes of underleveraged rulers who fear the US might seek to undermine them. In March, 2018, Putin will get another six years to polish and perfect his pitch.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.