Author: Tornike Turmanidze, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
On September 12, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the 8th Eastern Economic Forum, held in the Russian city of Vladivostok, where he touched upon many domestic and foreign policy issues alongside economic ones. The Russian leader also answered the moderator’s questions at the forum plenary session, which were most likely pre-arranged. What key points did Putin make in his speech, and what conclusions can be drawn from his statements? Let’s briefly review the political messages of the Russian leader.
Initiated by Vladimir Putin, the Eastern Economic Forum has been held annually since 2015. This forum has both an economic and a geopolitical purpose – it aims to attract foreign investments to the Far East region of the Russian Federation and to promote Russia’s economic and political cooperation with Asia-Pacific countries. The arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok during this year’s forum and his meeting with Putin was another hostile Russian gesture toward the West, fully corresponding to the spirit of the statements made by the Russian President at the forum. The Kremlin also used the participation of delegates from some Asian countries (China, India, Myanmar, Laos, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, etc.) in the forum to strengthen its propaganda message that, notwithstanding Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and the war crimes it committed there, the attempt by the U.S. and its allies to achieve Russia’s complete international isolation had been unsuccessful.
Speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin devoted most of his time to discussing economic issues, but he did not miss the opportunity to present his political worldview as well. He began his speech by negatively portraying the role of the West in the global economy and supporting the idea of a multipolar world. The Russian President stated that a new model of relations and integration between the countries was being formed which was free from Western influence. As an example, he cited the increased trade turnover between Russia and Asia-Pacific countries over the last year and a half, and expressed hope for the continuation of this trend, signaling to the West that Russia was compensating for the loss suffered after cutting economic ties with the West by finding alternative trade partners.
Speaking about supporting business in the Far East region, Putin pointedly mentioned the preferential terms introduced in the Kuril Islands, thereby reminding Japan once again that its territorial claims were meaningless to him.
In general, in his speech, Putin tried to show that despite the Russia-Ukraine war and the sanctions imposed by the West, the Russian economy was functioning well, the Russian government continued to invest in the economy of the regions, including the Far East, and in the future, Russia, through better management of its rich natural resources, would be able to produce all the necessary goods even in such fields as microelectronics, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, and others. With this, Putin also emphasized Russia’s potential to wage a long-term war against Ukraine.
The Russian leader also spoke about the need to develop the Northern Sea Route, Baikal-Amur and Trans-Siberian railways, as well as other infrastructure projects connecting the European and Asian parts of Russia, obviously intended to reorient Russian exports from the European to the Asian market. From Putin’s speech one could easily conclude that, in light of the gradual tightening of Western sanctions, it has become vital for Russia to develop trade and investment ties with China, India, and other Asian countries. In addition, Putin told big Russian businesses that it was safer to invest capital in the domestic economy than abroad.
By expressing his satisfaction over Russia’s “economic success”, and making optimistic forecasts, Putin tried on the one hand to reassure the domestic audience, and on the other to prove to the external audience that the Russian economy was resilient. Putin particularly targeted the foreign delegates attending the forum, whom he tried to convince that strengthening economic ties with Russia would benefit their countries.
During the question-and-answer session, the Russian President touched on a wider range of topics. Again, he focused on the economic and political vitality of Russia, the multipolarity of the international system, the weakening of the West, the emergence of new centers of economic power, and the prospects of cooperation with them.
Putin criticized Russian emigres, including Arkady Volozh, one of the founders of the company Yandex, Anatoly Chubais, author of the economic reforms of the 1990s and the former head of the state corporation Rosnano, whom he accused of embezzling money, and representatives of the entertainment industry, who, in his words, were serving the interests of foreign countries. It is noteworthy that while answering the question about the concept of a “foreign agent,” Putin referred to the law adopted in Russia in 2012 as a more liberal copy of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which exactly coincided with the justification proposed by Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party to both the Georgian and international community in 2023 regarding the Georgian “foreign agents law.”
Putin spoke at length about Russia’s emerging partnerships in the developing world, particularly with Asian and African countries, which the Soviet Union had helped in the “fight against colonialism” during the Cold War, and which, in his words, were still victims of Western “neo-colonialism.” Furthermore, Putin repeated the well-known false statement of Soviet and later Russian propaganda that Russia, unlike the West, had never been a colonizer, and had treated all peoples equally.
Putin’s mention of the International North-South Transport Corridor, through which Russia intends to connect with Iran, the Persian Gulf, and India, through Azerbaijan, should be notable for Georgia. The Russian leader said that a new route was being planned as part of this project, connecting Russia to the Mediterranean Sea via the Black Sea. If we recall the statement made by the President of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Sergey Katyrin in May 2023, perhaps, the use of the territory of Georgia, including the Russian-occupied Abkhazia, is also implied here.
Putin praised “SpaceX” founder and CEO Elon Musk even though Starlink satellites provide internet access to Ukraine. Probably, this was due to Musk’s recent revelation that he had switched off internet access to Ukraine’s armed forces at a decisive moment and thus thwarted their military operation on the Crimean Peninsula.
While discussing the U.S. presidential election, Putin first sounded a note of caution, suggesting that U.S. foreign policy toward Russia – the perception of Russia as an adversary – would remain unchanged regardless of who becomes the next president. However, a moment later Putin did not hide his sympathy for Donald Trump, who, if elected as president again, threatened to cut off military aid to Ukraine. Clearly, Putin is pinning his hopes on Trump’s victory in the 2024 U.S. presidential election, which he believes will help Russia end the war against Ukraine with a more or less desirable outcome.
Putin assessed Trump’s indictment in several criminal cases as his political persecution by President Joe Biden, and repeated the Soviet propaganda messages he had most probably learned while working in the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) that the American political system was “rotten” and American imperialism had a “bestial face.” Yet, the Russian President showed admiration for the Americans interested in maintaining good relations with his country, who, in his words, shared respect for “traditional values,” thus making it clear once again that he wants the radical conservative and isolationist wing of the Republican Party to lead the U.S. government.
According to Putin, the West views China (as well as Russia) as a geopolitical rival and thus tries to restrain its development. However, he said that this attempt was doomed to fail because the Chinese “train had already started rolling.” The shower of compliments to China and its leader confirmed that Putin desperately needs Xi Jinping’s help in both the economic and military spheres, but at the same time it is important for Russia to present China as an equal partner and not an “older brother.”
As expected, when discussing Ukraine, Putin tried to portray the counteroffensive launched by the Ukrainian armed forces in the summer as a failure, ignoring its results, and exaggerating the losses of troops and military equipment on the Ukrainian side while downplaying the losses on the Russian side. He also emphasized that the military aid provided by the West to Ukraine could not change the situation on the battlefield, and expressed the wish that the U.S. compel the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to start negotiations. Putin also said that at this stage there was no need to announce a new wave of military mobilization in Russia because after the first wave of 300,000 people, an additional 270,000 people “voluntarily” enrolled in the Russian armed forces in the last six months – thus indicating a surplus of cannon fodder. With these statements, Putin seems to have tried on the one hand to present his regime as invincible in the eyes of the Russian population, and on the other to strengthen the argument of the part of the Western political elite and society which, for “peacemaking” or some other purposes, supports halting military aid to Ukraine. Sowing doubt in the U.S. and Europe about Ukraine’s ability to achieve military victory remains one of the main directions of Russia’s information war.
What’s more, Putin did not forget to mention the threat of nuclear war. He accused British intelligence agencies of planning an attack on one of Russia’s nuclear power plants and threatened retaliatory measures. It seems that Putin found the military aid provided directly by the U.K. to Ukraine quite painful.
During the question-and-answer session, Putin also discussed a rather sensitive issue – Armenia. Some recent statements and steps by Nikol Pashinyan’s government are perceived both in Russia and in the West as an attempt to change the country’s foreign policy orientation, especially: Pashinyan’s statement that Armenia’s security dependence on Russia alone was a mistake and therefore it was necessary to diversify the country’s security policy; the joint U.S.-Armenian military exercises; Armenia’s decision to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; the visit of Armenia’s First Lady to Kyiv, and so on. Although Putin denied that Armenia’s foreign policy course was changing, he did not hide his displeasure with Pashinyan, and unambiguously hinted that, just like during the Second Karabakh War of 2020, Russia would not help Armenia in a new military confrontation with Azerbaijan, citing the Armenian government’s recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh as a reason. Putin eventually fulfilled this promise. His desire to punish and ultimately topple the Pashinyan government has proved so great that Russia again defaulted on its commitment to its ally Armenia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and by its inaction helped the government of Azerbaijan regain control over Karabakh.
At the end of the forum plenary session, Putin once again emphasized that Russia should be self-sufficient in the fields of economy, defense, and security, but at the same time it should not be isolated and should develop cooperation with the countries comprising most of the world’s population. The Russian leader again meant those Asian, African, and Latin American countries that do not support the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia and maintain warm relations with Moscow.
Thus, the Russian President’s speech at the Eastern Economic Forum more or less fully covered the issues which are currently high on the Russian government’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. These are: 1) Adjusting Russia to the international sanctions regime – steering the country’s economy towards partial self-sufficiency and strengthening trade, financial, technological, investment, transport, and other ties with China and other countries of the developing world; 2) Weakening the United States and its European allies on the international arena, implementing the idea of a multipolar world – developing Russia’s partnerships with China and other authoritarian states which are opposed to the West, and receiving military aid from them; 3) Continuing the war of aggression against Ukraine, repelling the Ukrainian counteroffensive, retaining the occupied territories and starting “peace talks” with Ukraine in order to take a pause in hostilities and later resume the attack; 4) Waging an information war in the West to achieve the termination of military aid to Ukraine, including through the support of like-minded political actors and nuclear blackmail of opponents; and 5) Maintaining Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space – supporting “friendly” governments, while helping to bring down “unfriendly” ones. A good example of that is Russia’s current policy towards Armenia.