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What Does Putin Want?

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Is the question, what does Putin want, the same question as what does Russia want?  I think the answer is that the answers to the two questions are fairly close.  In any case, Putin has not been at all shy about telling us what he wants on behalf of Russia.  He used two high-level European conferences recently to spell out exactly what his concerns are.  The first was his speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy on October 2, 2007, in the presence of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.  And the second was at a press conference following the Summit of the European Union in Lisbon on October 26.

He opened his remarks in Munich by saying that he would avoid “excessive politeness” and “say what I really think about international security problems.”  He started the talk by an appraisal and critique of U.S. foreign policy.  He called the idea of a unipolar world “pernicious” not only for others but for the “sovereign itself.”  The unipolar model was not only “unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.”

He talked of the increasing disdain for the basic principles of international law, and said that “first and foremost the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.”  He said this was “extremely dangerous.”  He insisted that the use of force can be justified only if “sanctioned by the UN” and one cannot “substitute NATO or the EU for the UN.”  He specifically warned against the “militarization of outer space.”  He reminded everyone of a speech of then NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner on May 17, 1990, in which he gave Russia “a firm security guarantee” that NATO would not place a NATO army “outside of German territory.”  Putin asked: “Where are these guarantees?”

Then he turned to the question of the struggle against poverty in the world.  He asserted that resources that are being allocated for these purposes are tied to development of the donor country’s companies.  “And let’s say things as they are — one hand distributes charitable help and the other hand not only preserves economic backwardness but also reaps the profit thereof.”

Putin was even more provocative in Lisbon where he said that the U.S. policy in Europe, and specifically its proposals about missile installations, was analogous to the Cuban missile crisis.  “A threat is being set up on our borders.”  Having made the analogy, he said that there was no such crisis now because of Russia’s changed relations with the European Union and the United States.  He added (with a smile?) that “with President Bush, this is a relationship of trust.  I think I have the right to call him a personal friend, as he calls me.”

Putin has clearly said to the United States and to Europe that if they want a renewal of military buildup in Europe, they can have it.  But if not, then they have to reconsider their present policy.  Putin however did not put his eggs in that basket.  For he is confident that the geopolitical situation is rapidly changing, because of the transformation of the world-economy.

Putin pointed out that the combined GDP in purchasing power parity of India and China is already greater than that of the United States.  And if one does the same calculations for the so-called BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — they surpass the cumulative GDP of the European Union.  And he added, “according to experts this gap will only increase in the future.”  As Putin said, it is obvious that this economic potential will “inevitably be converted into political influence and will strengthen multipolarity.”

Putin even held out the economic carrot.  He pointed out that “foreign companies participate in all our major energy projects.”  In oil extraction, 26% is done by foreign capital.  “Try, try to find me a similar example where Russian business participates extensively in key economic sectors in Western countries.  Such examples do not exist!  There are no such examples.”

Putin wants, as Russians have wanted for centuries, to be accepted as a principal player in the world-system.  He obviously feels that the United States, and even Western Europe, used the Yeltsin interlude to ignore Russia.  He seems confident that the tide has turned, primarily because of changes in the world-economy.  And, confident of the future, Putin lays down his conditions.  He appears to be appealing to Europe for active cooperation and to the United States for a de facto military truce.  We shall see in the next decade how successful such policies will be.


Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton.  Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It  (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003).  This commentary was published on 15 November 2007.  © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global.  For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact: rights@agenceglobal.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606.  Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed.  To contact author, write: immanuel.wallerstein@yale.edu.  Visit the archive of Wallerstein’s previous commentaries at <www.binghamton.edu/fbc/cmpg.htm>.  These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.



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