If you ever wondered which world statesman resembles Napoleon Bonaparte you have the answer now. Vladimir Putin compared the late Emperor of the French to Muammar Gaddafi. Or rather vice versa. I am not sure whether Napoleon himself would have been pleased with the comparison. During a press conference in Denmark, the Russian premier suddenly went on a rhetorical rampage. He attacked the coalition, which enforced a “no fly zone” in Libya, Western governments, who, in his view, launched the war to control Libyan oil, and the Arabs, for being primitive and unfit for democracy.
The fact that this sharp critique was delivered as pilots of the Royal Danish Air Force are flying sorties over Libya no doubt added to the pleasure of Putin’s Copenhagen hosts and Prime Minister Lars Loke Rasmussen personally.
To me it looked as if Mr. Putin got carried away by emotions. But he also, willingly or unwillingly, demonstrated how Russia’s political class looks at the world.
First, Russia’s political class is firmly convinced that in international affairs only interests matter, while for values and moral judgement there is no place. This is a topic that finds huge resonance not only among Russian decision-makers, but, with the help of state controlled television, with the Russian people. In Copenhagen, the Russian premier voiced a suspicion that Western nations went to war because they want to control Libyan oil. He overlooks that fact that the allied air operation is an open-ended risky business with no guarantee of success, or that Western companies worked in Libya perfectly well under Gaddafi until the disturbances there started. The wealth and power of Russia’s political class stem from oil and gas, and so in their view the world revolves around hydrocarbons.
Second, Mr. Putin’s idea that the Arab mentality is inclined towards monarchy and authoritarianism is also a projection of Russian elite’s general attitudes. It sees the Asians and Africans as mentally underdeveloped people, not yet fully grown up. Just like the Russian people, they need strong leaders to tell them what to do. The idea of “citizens as eternal adolescents,” who need in turn to be threatened and flattered, is another article of faith among the majority of Russia’s politicians.
Finally, there is a third observation. Mr. Putin was sarcastic to the point of satire, but he also looked irritated and strangely powerless. I suspect it is because the world Russia’s political leaders are clinging to, is crumbling in front of their own eyes. In the old world, states were reliably insulated from outside influences and their rulers were free to do what they wanted to their people. Non-interference in internal affairs of states was the number one rule of global diplomacy, while interference was a cardinal sin. In this world, which was there only twenty-five years ago, dictatorships used to enjoy essentially the same international legitimacy as democracies.
Not any more. The concept of “responsibility to protect,” which limits the ability of dictatorial regimes to kill their own people, gained even a UN acceptance – a notoriously difficult task in an organization where dictators always felt fairly comfortable. After Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Rwanda – despite all the differences between those crises – the comfortable excuse of sovereignty as justification for repression is significantly discredited.
Putin was absolutely right when he noted that no one knows what to do with this. Even the mighty NATO doesn’t have enough planes and ships to make every dictator on Earth comply with humanitarian norms. So attempts to introduce moral thinking into international affairs are bound to be sporadic, inconsistent and, sometimes, complete failures. But they will no doubt continue. By publicly opposing this trend in Denmark, Vladimir Putin has dramatically revealed the insecurity Russia’s ruling class feels in this volatile and dangerous, but undeniably new world.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.