The New York Times doesn't want you to understand this Vladimir Putin speech

The Russian leader delivers an important foreign policy address we should consider. The Times botches it badly

Published November 7, 2014 12:01AM (EST)

Vladimir Putin                       (Reuters/Yves Herman)
Vladimir Putin (Reuters/Yves Herman)

Give me a sec to count. In my lifetime the Soviet Union and latterly the Russian Federation have had nine leaders. Stalin’s death elevated Malenkov and then Khrushchev, and the banishing of Khrushchev led to Brezhnev. Then came a pair of forgettables, then Gorbachev and on to the ever-inebriated Yeltsin (whom one wants dearly to forget). For 15 years, counting the Dmitry Medvedev interval, Vladimir Putin has held the wheel of the Russian bus.

Of all these figures only Stalin, and only in his post-“Uncle Joe” years, has been vilified to the extent of the current Russian leader. The question is obvious and I hope not too complicated: Why?

There are always plenty of answers floating around. I take almost all of them to lie somewhere between misguided and malevolent by intent, but I will get to this in a minute. In as few words as I can manage, here is my thought: Putin has fallen drastically afoul of Washington — and his war is with Washington more than the Europeans — because those in deep slumber do not like to be awakened.

It is an irresistible time to consider this problem for two reasons. One, in history two sure signs of imperial decline are deafness and blindness in the imperial capital, and as of the past year or so Washington exhibits seriously deteriorating symptoms. The willful refusal of our foreign policy cliques to look squarely at our world and listen to those in it is getting dangerous.

Two, Putin has just delivered a speech every American deserves to hear and consider. Few will have done so for the simple reason that our media declined to tell you about the Russian leader’s presentation to an annual gathering of leaders and thinkers called the Valdai International Discussion Club, a Davos variant. Here is the Kremlin transcript, and now readers have two things to decide: What they think of the speech and what they think of the American media for not reporting it.

The theme at Valdai this year was “The World Order: NewRules, or a Game Without Rules.” With the Ukraine crisis bumbling along toward a conclusion (or not) and the horrifically pointless mess America has made of the Middle East and now worsens daily, the either/or title is just about right: We cannot continue on in the post-Cold War era as we have until now.

A Russian commentator named Dmitry Orlov, whom I do not know of, said of Putin’s contribution, “This is probably the most important political speech since Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech of March 5, 1946.” I have no archive of political speeches and cannot cast a vote, but Putin’s remarks certainly have an amplitude that makes ignoring them unforgivable. Paying-attention readers can compare them with the speech Putin gave as Crimea was annexed last March. Churchillian or no, this is once again big stuff.

“Let me say I will speak directly and frankly,” Putin begins. “Some of what I say might seem a bit too harsh, but if we do not speak directly and honestly about what we really think, then there is little point in even meeting in this way. We need to be direct and blunt today not so as to trade barbs, but so as to attempt to get to the bottom of what is actually happening in the world, try to understand why the world is becoming less safe and more unpredictable, and why the risks are increasing everywhere around us.”

Right away, clear language, shorn of obfuscation. No wonder no one from Washington of any rank attended this talkfest. Plain speaking is no longer in the American repertoire. And guess what else Putin marshaled: historical reference. Out, out, out of the question for the American policy cliques.

I was tempted to read this speech as a postmortem of the Ukraine crisis, a looking back. There is something to this, but not overmuch. Putin has his point to make about Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea: “We did not start this.” But in reply to a question from Dominique de Villepin, a former French premier, Putin noted, “I believe Dominique referred to the Ukrainian crisis as the reason for the deterioration in international relations. Naturally, this crisis is a cause, but this is not the principal cause. The crisis in Ukraine is itself a result of an imbalance in international relations.”

Not Kosovo, not Iraq, not Libya, not Syria, not Ukraine — all are best understood less as causes than as symptoms. These are America’s “follies,” as Putin called them, Washington’s “theory of controlled chaos” at work.

In essence — the speech is long, carefully phrased and difficult to summarize — Putin argues that the New World Order the Bush I administration declared as the Soviet Union collapsed was a fundamental misreading of the moment. It is now a 20-odd-year failure hacks such as Tom Friedman compulsively term the successful spread of neoliberalism in the face of abundant evidence otherwise.

“A unilateral diktat and imposing one’s own models produces the opposite result,” Putin asserted. “Instead of settling conflicts it leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy there is support for a very dubious public ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals.”

Such is Putin’s take on how we got here. His view of where we have to go now is yet more compelling. Our systems of global security are more or less destroyed — “weakened, fragmented, and deformed,” in Putin’s words. In the face of this reality, multipolar cooperation in the service of substantial reconstruction agreements, in which the interests of all sides are honored, is mandatory.

“Given the global situation, it is time to start agreeing on fundamental things,” Putin said. Then:

What could be the legal, political and economic basis for a new world order that would allow for stability and security, while encouraging healthy competition, not allowing the formation of new monopolies that hinder development? It is unlikely that someone could provide absolutely exhaustive, ready-made solutions right now. We will need extensive work with participation by a wide range of governments, global businesses, civil society, and such expert platforms as ours. However, it is obvious that success and real results are only possible if key participants in international affairs can agree on harmonizing basic interests, on reasonable self-restraint, and set the example of positive and responsible leadership. We must clearly identify where unilateral actions end and we need to apply multilateral mechanisms.

It is essential to read this as an attack on the U.S. because it is one. But there is a follow-on recognition not to be missed: This is the speech not of some kind of nostalgic empire builder — Putin dismisses the charge persuasively — but of a man genuinely afraid that the planet is close to tipping into some version of primitive disorder. Absent less adversarial international relations, we reach a moment of immense peril.

Before I explain my view of the Putin presentation, I urge readers to try a simple exercise. In the mind’s eye, strip all names and identifiers out of the Web page where the speech is printed. Read the words for the words alone. Then make up your minds as to the wisdom or otherwise of the thinking.

O.K. Now I feel a little safer relating my perspective.

Putin’s speech is so many magnitudes more sensible and credible than anything we have heard from Washington in who can say how long that one must either laugh or do the other thing. He has always seemed to me to honor history, and here he speaks with its authority. This is where the world is now, these are the mistakes that made it this way, and this is how we can correct them. And since it is all oars in the water, wake from your slumber, Americans.

This is precisely what Washington cannot bear the thought of. Any idea of global history that suggests a diminution of American power and prerogative is either to be ignored or actively extinguished.

As to the man who delivered these remarks, there ought to have been no need for me to propose the above experiment — reading the speech while forgetting the speaker. But this is where America’s childish, undignified name-calling and demonization, as awful as anything in “Lord of the Flies,” lands us.

What about Putin’s human rights record? What about the oligarchs? What about the “fervent nationalism,” Russian nationalism always being fervent when described by American hacks? What about “autocracy”? And that Christian fundamentalism of Putin’s? What about the Russian press, and the judges, the well-meaning NGOs taking American funding and ...?

These are not bad questions. They are simply not the germane questions, and they are best answered by Russians in any case. The question for us is, What are dissenters from the orthodoxy to do as they recognize that Putin stands for the right of non-Western nations to be non-Western, to escape imitation, to create and solve their problems themselves? It is because Putin insists this right must be part of a truly new world order that he is singled out in the long list of Russia’s postwar leaders.

Do not ask why a leader as evil as Beelzebub by our reckoning enjoys an approval rating of nearly 90 percent. I have just told you why.

Even the Financial Times correspondent in Sochi, where the Valdai gathering was held, acknowledged the significance of Putin’s presentation. “The speech,” Neil Buckley wrote, “was one of Mr. Putin’s most important foreign policy statements since he surprised the West in Münich in 2007 by accusing the U.S. of ‘overstepping its boundaries in every way’ and creating new dividing lines in Europe.”

Well done, Neil Buckley. I would say your coverage was standout except that almost no one else covered it, so cheap thrills thus. On our side of the pond, recognition is due Alex Jones, the slightly paranoid conspiracy theorist, who at least put the speech and a commentary across to Americans by reprinting the Dmitry Orlov item cited above.

The New York Times coverage was notable, as in notably bad even by its poor standards of objectivity. So let’s end noting it, briefly.

The news piece was brief, buried and written by Neil MacFarquhar, a correspondent in the Moscow bureau whose habit of slanting coverage has been a topic in this space previously. MacFarquhar missed the point entirely — he had to, as the Times can hardly be expected to render an account that actually got to what Putin said and meant.

The taker of the cake for me, however, was an opinion piece by Serge Schmemann which you can read here. Do so: You will see a classic case of Times’-style innuendo and the use of language as instruction in what to think. And you will understand, if you do not already, why I think American responses to Putin can fairly be called childish.

Putin’s appearance at Sochi was “his chance to sound off on a global stage,” we have to know in the first sentence, insinuating him into the tinpot dictator file. Then a quotation from the speech:

“‘It looks like the so-called ‘winners’ of the Cold War are determined to have it all and reshape the world into a place that could better serve their interests alone.’” This was not simply an observation, we must understand: It was “one notable riff.” Anyone have any idea what a notable riff would be in this case?

Here is Schmemann on the Ukraine passages of the presentation: “In Mr. Putin’s version of the Ukrainian crisis, the United States was the instigator of the protests in Kiev that led to a ‘coup’ against President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent fighting. One American participant told Mr. Putin she was hard put to recognize her country as the one he was describing.”

Well, confused American participant, you make an interesting point. Washington has created a version of events in Ukraine that amounts to a parallel reality, and people such as Schmemann are paid to perpetuate it. If it is of any help: There was a coup, there were neo-fascists among its leaders, the State Department backed it, and the evidence of all this is indisputable.

(Transparency: I was briefly a colleague of Schmemann’s during the International Herald Tribune’s final years.)

“What is hard to gauge listening to Mr. Putin,” Schmemann writes, “is whether he really means to put the blame for all things wrong on the United States, or whether he is cynically using the old Soviet gimmick of projecting onto America and the West all the faults of which the U.S.S.R. itself was accused.”

Hmmm. The thought never occurred to me. I suppose it is a strange idea to some of us, but I think even Russians can mean what they say, I think Putin did, and we are better off for his having said it.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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Media Criticism New York Times Vladimir Putin