Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

The 'Valdai' Club and Russia's Ambition for a New World Order

The Valdai Club has just concluded its nineteenth annual conference. Usually, it is an event where participants from around the world converge in Russia, to exchange views with Russian officials and experts on the state of the world and Russia’s role therein.

This time round matters were somewhat different coming amidst the Ukraine crisis. So the usual array of experts on Russia from the west shied away. In fact, since 2014 western participation has been steadily declining. Only a handful of academics, mostly Marxist showed up with a nostalgia for the Soviet era. The only exception was the remote participation of two prominent American academics and a conservative think tanker.

As is the tradition, President Putin spoke before the conference, spending some four hours, mostly answering questions. He seemed confident, relaxed, and keen to engage in debate with the audience.

President Putin was preceded by a number of senior officials from the government, most notably Foreign Minister Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Novak and Presidential Advisor Oreishkin.

The conference thus provided a window into official Russian thinking about not only how they want the world to view their present domestic situation, but also how Moscow relates to the international situation. But more importantly how the government hopes to shape the future.

The message was clear. Russia is not only confident, but defiant. It is also optimistic about the future.

As to the present, the Russian economy has proven to be resilient. What was referred to as the “ Sanctions Blitzkrieg” from the West has failed to cause the collapse of the economy. In fact, the rubble strengthened by 40 %.

Also Russia is not isolated. This was an important point to emphasize given the setback Moscow suffered at the UN General Assembly recently on the resolutions on Ukraine. It has friends everywhere. Certainly in China and developing countries. But also in the west. Not the elite as President Putin mentioned, but among those who share “ traditional values “ with Russia. Probably a euphemism for the more conservative segments of western societies and the right-wing parties that represent them.

Concerning the future, Moscow sees the world as inevitably and irreversibly moving towards Multipolarity with new “ center's of power “ emerging. US hegemony is ending. But the West is resisting change.

A Third World War may have already begun, but this time around it does not necessarily involve the use of arms, but rather a whole array of weapons from cyberwar, sanctions, food, energy, etc…

What was striking was the revival, by both the Russian officials and participants as well as some of the foreign participants of jargon lifted from the Soviet era playbook. Globalization was described as a neo-colonial ploy to perpetuate the domination by the “ imperialist west “ of developing countries and the international economy. However, once the West achieved its objectives, it started to undermine globalization through a series of measures such as imposing sanctions, trade barriers, and restricting financial flows.

The message to developing countries is specific. The West has exploited you twice by plundering your resources: once through imperialism and now by globalization. It was therefore time for the developing countries to join forces with both Russia and China to establish a more balanced and equitable multipolar international order.

True to the Russian sense of exceptionalism and messianic streak, Russia offers the world spiritual purity in the form of a new international order based on honesty and justice.

Contrary to the Biden National Security Strategy issued in early October which stipulated that Globalization “ needs adjustment “, Russia considers it in its last throws. It just needs to be nudged to its total collapse.

As to how to establish the new order, a number of ideas were presented.

First, the need to resist the notion of the “ rule-based international order “which the West employs to undermine the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states. What is required is to uphold the UN Charter which respects the free choice of every country to determine its own future.

Second, the reform of the United Nations, in particular the Security Council. In this regard, the Russian position was clear: expansion of membership, in particular the permanent one, should be confined to developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Also, Russia is open to discussing the working methods of the Council to ensure that is able to better discharge its responsibilities. However, there can be no compromise on the veto power of the five permanent members.

Likewise the Bretton Woods institutions the World Bank and the IMF need reform to better reflect the new configuration of economic power.

Third, it is necessary to revamp the international financial system by diminishing the dependency on the US dollar as the international reserve currency. While it was acknowledged that is a steep slope, it was possible. President Putin indicated that Russia is increasingly conducting its trade with China, India, and others in local currencies, suggesting if other countries follow suit, the dollar will no longer hold sway over the international financial system.

Fourth, Regionalization was presented as the best means to achieve the new world order. Existing regional arrangements need to be enlarged and consolidated. They also need to cooperate amongst themselves. This was particularly true in the Eurasian space where Russia, China, and India would be the main pillars. In this regard there was an emphasis on eastern Eurasia is probably designed to offer an alternative to the United States' vision of an Indo- Pacific space.

The Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization SCO were singled out. Also, BRICS was also presented as a promising inter-regional arrangement that can support regional arrangements.

The accent on Eurasia makes sense for Russia, as it is the only country that straddles both Europe and Asia and, therefore can have an advantageous position in any economic arrangements in this space.

But while Russia, at this stage, is emphasizing eastern Eurasia, it appears to leave the door open for Europe to join, provided that it is able to achieve strategic autonomy from the United States.

As to Ukraine, the narrative remained the same. The 2014 coup d'état is responsible for where we are today. Kiev did not respect the Minsk Accords and was continuously shelling the Donbas. Russia needed to act before Ukraine, which had been amassing weapons from the west, was going to take action against the Donbas.

However, what is interesting is that some Russian participants acknowledged that mistakes were made concerning Ukraine. Basically underestimating the will of the Ukrainians to fight ( implicit acknowledgment of Ukrainian nationalism which is contrary to the official Russian position which considers the two countries as one nation ) and the extent to which the west was prepared to go to support Ukraine.

Probably even more interesting is that in response to a question about the goals Russia aspires to achieve from its “ special military operation “ in Ukraine, President Putin stated, “But the plan was there, and the goal is to help the people of Donbas. This is the premise under which we are operating”. There was no mention of the two other provinces Kherson and Zaporizhia which were “ incorporated” in Russia.

What also appeared to be clear was a sense of resignation that the crisis in Ukraine will not be resolved anytime soon and that Russia although prepared for such an eventuality, was prepared to negotiate without delay.

In conclusion, while some of the main features of the proposed new order are clear, others require elaboration, particularly those that relate to cooperation between the various existing economic groupings and then between them and the inter-regional ones. The challenge is to articulate these elements in a coherent vision and convince both China and influential developing countries to participate in transforming such a vision into a plan of action.