United Moscow

In the final article of a three part series, TNI senior editor Anatol Lieven reflects on his meetings with high-level Russian officials at the Valdai Club conference last week.

In the course of the Valdai conference in Russia from September 7-14 we met with President Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn. There was no significant difference between them in what they said about Russian policy and Russian views. Nor have such differences appeared outside the conference.

Of course, it is possible that they exist in private and have so far been kept under wraps by strict discipline; but it is very important to note that there is no actual evidence for this. From the point of view of shaping Western policy towards Russia, it would therefore be wise to proceed from the assumption that what we are facing is a very united and determined Russian approach which is strongly supported by the entire top leadership. Indeed, to judge from the ordinary Russians I talked with during our stay, the government line on the need to fight in South Ossetia also appears to be supported by the overwhelming majority of the population.

As is his wont, Vladimir Putin used somewhat harsher tones about Western policy than President Medvedev, but Medvedev was also absolutely categorical that the decision to fight against "Georgian aggression" was unavoidable. He emphasised that he would have taken exactly the same decision even if Georgia had previously received a NATO Membership Action Plan, "and then we would have had a much more serious crisis."

Medvedev also said, like Putin, that while he took the steep decline in the Russian stock market and reduction of foreign investment seriously, and while he himself had had "more important things to do" in August than fight a war,

when it comes to choosing between protecting people's lives and protecting the economy, you can understand why we made the choice we did. Almost every state would have reacted in this way if a situation of the kind that presented itself in August had occurred. That is how we reacted. I have specifically said and I reiterate it for my audience here: protecting the lives and the dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they are, is the raison d'etre of the Russian state.

Medvedev's ostensibly calm public response to the stock market crisis echoes Putin's:

I believe that the resources available to our companies to restore the values of Russian stock indicators is huge. There are two reasons for this: the first is that until now Russian blue chip stocks, the most attractive Russian companies, have still not reached their peak: their worth has not yet been fully appreciated. They are still undervalued. And the second reason is that, given that our market is still growing, still evolving, in this sense it is more risky than traditional markets, and this makes for all the variability in the markets, or as economists say, all the market volatility. There is nothing to be frightened of. We simply need to take a deep breath and calmly continue to pursue developing the economy, as a matter of fact to go on doing what we have been doing.

This may of course be purely for public consumption; the word from Russian businessmen is very much grimmer. It does however once again indicate what is for the moment at least a united administration line.

On relations with the West, all the Russian leaders said that they have no desire for a new cold war, since as Putin stressed, "we have many common problems that we can only solve together: terrorism, global warming, infectious disease, regional crises." Lavrov emphasized Russia's desire to help the NATO operation in Afghanistan, and that it was the United States. which had rejected Russian offers of assistance.

In response to a question from an Israeli participant, Medvedev went out of his way to say that Russia would not follow the Soviet Union's strategy in the Middle East, that it was committed to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that a conference provisionally scheduled to be held in Moscow is a continuation of the one held under U.S. auspices at Annapolis.

All, however, attacked the West over its support for Georgia, and stressed the breakdown of the U.S-led unipolar world order. In Medvedev's words,

Did the unipolar system work [over the Georgian crisis]? No, on the contrary, everyone froze in a loss as to what to do next. I think therefore that military analysts, politicians, and you too, as specialists in this area, will be analysing the lessons of the Caucasus crisis for some time to come. As I said, for me personally and for a large part of the Russian public, this crisis has meant an end to the last illusions about the current security system's ability to function reliably. We simply have to create a new security system, otherwise there will be no guarantees that some other Saakashvili could blow his top and do something like what happened in August, and we would again have to pay a high price.

One possible area of new agreement was suggested by Sergei Lavrov in answer to a question, when he acknowledged a legal and political parallel between Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the one hand and Kosovo on the other-thereby opening the possibility of a future deal on mutual recognition, if the West ever takes this up.