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.
All of the leaders took a hard line against NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, describing it as a threat to vital Russian interests; but all also said that in the absence of such a threat, they had no intention of undermining Ukraine or challenging Ukrainian territorial integrity. Putin declared that "all this talk about Crimea is a provocation. Is there really anything in common between Crimea and South Ossetia? In Georgia, there were civil wars and international peacekeepers. There is none of that in Ukraine, thank God." All emphasized Russia's interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine, given Russia's deep economic, cultural and human stake in that country. Putin spoke at length of the fact that a large majority of the Ukrainian population opposes NATO membership, and that a move in this direction will therefore itself cause damaging internal divisions.
Putin, Medvedev and Shuvalov all spoke of the need to push ahead with economic reforms, with Putin talking of Russia being "on the threshold of a new breakthrough" in this regard. In keeping with his past statements, however, Medvedev spoke at much greater length about property rights and the rule of law. Indeed, in this regard his remarks echo those of Russia's Western critics:
I have already been obliged to hold forth on the value of property rights. I believe that due to a number of factors in Russia for almost the entire twentieth century there was no real idea of property in the ordinary sense. And our task is to create it, to give it our full-fledged guidance and protection. This is perhaps the cornerstone of a normal investment and business climate. Nothing else means much in this regard, not even military developments, as paradoxical as that might sound, because problems of a military kind can be resolved, whereas economic development and social development never stop. . . . My deep conviction is that in Russia unfortunately there is no real understanding of the value of law. I have engaged with these issues for a long time, both in theory and in practice. Unfortunately this manifests itself everywhere, including in everyday matters, everyday issues: at the domestic level, the level of business, the level of civil servants and even the state as a whole. And so for us it's obvious, at least for me as head of state at any rate, that if we don't change in this regard we will never be accepted as equal partners.
This and Medvedev's youth (he is thirteen years younger than Putin) made me think that if we are lucky, and either personality clashes or economic crises do not drive them apart, the following may be a possible scenario for Russia: a natural and positive historical progression from a Putin generation dedicated to the restoration of order and state authority as the basis for economic progress to a Medvedev generation anxious to use the new order as the basis for the development of a law-based state and economy: a Rechtstaat, in the German phrase, even though probably not a fully-fledged democracy, whatever that is. You could say, the transition from Caesar the conqueror to Augustus the consolidator and administrator.
This was very much the dream of the great Russian reformers of the nineteenth century. But as with them, it would be the gravest mistake to think that Medvedev and other Russian state liberals of today are not at the same time passionately dedicated to the defense of Russian interests and Russian honor. A Western strategy that departs from the belief that the only legitimate Russian government is one that bows to Western commands will destroy every hope of international cooperation with Russia, and perhaps every hope of Russian domestic progress as well.