Robert Legvold vs. Valdai Club – goals in conflict

Russians cannot afford to be naïve about Americans. The Americans who control power and policy in the United States have goals in conflict with most of the world, including Russia. The organizations that formulate and maintain the current iterations of the “America pre-eminent” philosophy, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, exist in a reality-less vacuum. They live to further their agenda and nothing else. There is no compromise, no room for discussion with opposing views. They have no mirrors for self-reflection and humility. These individuals are not just misguided; they are very, very dangerous to the rest of the world.

There are other Americans who make excellent choices to speak or moderate at international symposiums for peace due to their commitment to building peace and harmonious world community, respecting national sovereignty, multi-polarity, and speaking truth. They view other people as neighbors, not threats or competitors. They are humble, honest, reality-based, and well aware of America’s faults. They are not bound by prejudice or narrow interest. It is possible to collaborate with them to move our world towards peace and understanding.

Robert Legvold is not one of them. Robert Legvold’s background is with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Harriman Institute. He and his compatriots have absolutely nothing to do with the goals of Valdai. CFR’s recent report on China is one example of their supremacist philosophy.

Legvold was given the powerful and important role of moderating the final session at the Valdai Club with President Vladimir Putin in October. Why?

Below is the transcript of his long 11-minute speech, followed by the responses of President Putin and Jack Matlock.

Legvold refused to deal with the facts about American imperialism and foreign intervention. He wrote off American history as a distortion in other people’s perspective. That shows Legvold is a liar and a fool. Any school child can find reams of evidence and testimony from official government reports and think tank documents on American objectives, including from the CFR itself. Legvold’s stance also indicates pathology. Unfortunately, he is not alone.

Here is Legvold out of context:

“…it is not just misguided policy, but it is malevolent policy. The US foreign policy today is designed, in the case of Russia, to do genuine harm to Russia’s foreign policy interests, to contain Russia, to roll Russia back, to reduce its influence and to damage its strategic interests and stakes, both more broadly and within the immediate neighborhood. But even beyond that, that it is now a case of a US policy committed to regime change within Russia itself…”

If he had said this, he would have spoken the truth. Instead, he lied to the audience, and he did it with clever words.

In addition, he rudely and inappropriately excluded Mr. Larijani and Mr. Klaus in his remarks, choosing to focus on the United States-Russia relationship which he called the most important. The “me, me, me” focus was immature and embarrassing. And it was such a waste of time for those two men.

Why was he chosen to moderate? Was this an attempt at bridge-building by Valdai members? Instead of facilitating a productive back-and-forth discussion between panel members and the audience, Legvold hijacked the meeting. That’s inexcusable.

Russians and others must understand that these Americans smile, they have impressive titles and CVs, they know exactly what words to say to appeal to people or confuse them (“if you will forgive me and if you will indulge me”), but they will walk right over or through anyone. To understand these people, look at American history. Their friends are coup d’etat agents and financiers. They have an inflexible agenda, and they’re very self-focused.

There is no conceivable reason for having someone like Robert Legvold speak at Valdai. To do so interrupts Valdai’s important work.

Here are links to the video

The other speakers on the panel were:

  • Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation
  • Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Council (parliament) of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Vaclav Klaus, former President of the Czech Republic
  • Jack Matlock, last US Ambassador to the USSR, Professor of Princeton University
  • Andrey Bystritsky, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club

Complete transcript of  President Putin’s remarks with some of Jack Matlock and Robert Legvold’s remarks

Transcript at 1:24:06

Robert Legvold: Thank you, Ambassador Matlock. Thank you for reminding us of what was necessary and what worked in ending the Cold War and in many respects, what’s missing in our own day at this point.

Now, what is expected to happen, in a moment I will turn to our speakers and allow them to exchange ideas, raise some questions among themselves, then I will turn to you for your questions.

But before that, if you will forgive me and if you will indulge me, let me begin the conversation with a general point that leads to a question. And what I, what I say in the next moments will be frank. And I defend myself in doing so by quoting you, President Putin, when you spoke to the Munich Security Conference in 2007 when you said, “This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in a roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms.”

If that’s the way I defend myself, that’s the way I urge you to ask your questions for this to be a genuinely productive exchange.

This meeting has been about a troubled world. The challenges that this troubled world is delivering for us, many of them intensely, some are well summarized in the comments by our speakers up to this point. And Valdai is about developing ideas, the struggle in order to begin addressing those challenges.

I would argue — and here forgive my focus on my own country, the United States — that of the troubled relationships in the world, in the context of this troubled world, the one that is the most important, not merely to my country and to Russia, is the US-Russia relationship — the one that’s the most important of the troubled relationships to the outside world.

In thinking about this, yesterday one of the particularly successful panels I thought was the one on the role of diplomacy in dealing with the challenges that we face now. Ambassador Richard Burt introduced the notion that it’s more than diplomacy. It’s even more broadly the question of statecraft. And diplomacy and statecraft – he wasn’t talking only about ambassadors or even foreign ministers. He was also talking about national leaders.

He of the five qualities finished, after identifying prudence and courage and creativity, finished with empathy. That if you’re going to succeed in statecraft, it has to, it has to be manifest in a capacity to empathize with the other side. That doesn’t mean agree with the other side, as he made plain. It is a question or a challenge of putting yourself in the other side’s shoes if you’re going to be effective in dealing with the other side.

And he finished by saying the problem today is a deficit of empathy.

And I think he was speaking particularly about the deficit or the lack of empathy in the US-Russia relationship at this point.

I would add to that, and this is the thrust of my point – there is something that is a prerequisite even for exercising empathy effectively, and that is that you understand the other side accurately.

And I think that’s what is missing at this point.

Instead we have narratives that each of us is operating with in Washington and more broadly, in our media, and in Moscow, and more broadly, in your media — a national leadership with, from my point of view, fundamentally warped narratives of what’s guiding the way in which we’re dealing with one another.

The result of this is the fundamental feature of the US relationship right now, if it has a resemblance, it is to the early years of the original Cold War, not even the later years of the original Cold War.

And that is, each side is assigning, if not exclusive blame for the deterioration in the relationship, the disrepair of the relationship, then by far, the majority of the responsibility. The blame is attached to the other side, and the interest in the interaction, the dance that we’ve done together that brought us to this point, is missing from the relationship right now.

This is one of the frank portions of what I have to say. On the Russian side, the understanding that I think many have on the outside is at this point the Russian interpretation of US foreign policy is not merely that over these years, it has been misguided and created the problems that you, Mr. President, have summarized in sharp terms on many occasions, going back to that 2007 speech in Munich, but that more recently, it is not just misguided policy, but it is malevolent policy. And the US foreign policy today is designed, in the case of Russia, to do genuine harm to Russia’s foreign policy interests, to contain Russia, to roll Russia back, to reduce its influence and to damage its strategic interests and stakes, both more broadly and within the immediate neighborhood. But even beyond that, that it is now a case of a US policy committed to regime change within Russia itself, having followed a policy of regime change in US strategic interests from, from the color revolutions to Iraq, to Libya, and then would be in Syria and now Ukraine in this context.

This is not something that I pull out of thin air. This was essentially the theme of Nikolai Patrushev’s [Secretary of Security Council of the Russian Federation] interview in Rossiyskaya Gazeta a year ago [October 2014].[i] It is directly the notion of regime change as a part of US foreign policy that was in foreign minister Lavrov’s address to the Council on Foreign Defense Policy a month later in November. Uh, that’s on the Russian side.

My own view, and others from various positions, US and otherwise, can agree or disagree with it, is this is a misreading of what is the fundamental impulse behind US policy toward Russia. You can criticize many aspects about the Obama policy, but I wouldn’t do it in those terms.

On the US side, there is an equal distortion in terms of the narratives that I’m referring to. Within the administration itself, I think that most, not all, certainly not the Secretary of State and most of the time, I think, not the President himself, are persuaded that what I’ve just summarized as the Russian view of US policy indeed exists.

The Obama administration believes that’s the attitude within Russia at this point and of your government. Their view, however, is that they do not sense any responsibility for having produced it, and they’re having difficulty explaining why it exists. But they come to the conclusion that, as a result, there’s very little they can do to change it, and therefore, there’s very little that they’re going to be able to do by way of cooperation or moving in the directions that several of you, including you, President Putin, exhorted should happen between the two sides.

There is a larger part of the public, and, I think, the US Congress and the media that has a starker view and narrative which I think is fundamentally distorted. And that is, the problem is not out of the interaction between the United States and Russia or how we got here over however many years you want to look at, but there is essentially, first of all, the result of Russian behaviour, especially within the context of the Ukrainian crisis. And that is a product — not of, as I said, international relations, Russia’s reaction to the outside world, the interaction –it is a function of the nature of the Russian political system and regime. And Russian behavior is determined not by that interaction with the outside world, but by what they would argue are the requirements of the Russian leadership and government as it is currently structured: a need for external enemies, a need to prevent democracy from creeping toward Russian borders, even an alternative source of legitimacy if there are economic difficulties in the country.

Now from my point of view, this is fundamentally wrong. But it is probably more widespread than even the first interpretation that I offered.

Now I make these points because I believe that before you’re going to be able to make any progress toward achieving common ground and a common approach on the issues that we’re talking about, the hard issues, because surely we ought to have a common goal at this point, and acting together in dealing with ISIS, and surely we should be beginning to make progress in what Jack Matlock referred to at the end, and I did earlier and you did, President Putin, in your comments, beginning to bring some order to this nuclear world. It leads to, and I apologize for having been this windy at the outset, it leads to two questions.

First of all, the sheer practical question, and this is to President Putin, is this a mischaracterization in the way in which you, if you as you say in Russian “—“ see the challenge posed by the US administration?

But beyond that, if there is validity to what I’m describing, that is, that the narratives that we’re working with fundamentally get in the way of achieving the kind of cooperation that you want to see and that I think our leadership wants to see and other governments want to see, how do we begin moving in another direction? Or to put it in a phrase, how do we begin changing the trajectory at this very basic level?

(Ends 1:35:04)

Vladimir Putin: First of all, let me thank everyone who spoke. I think this was all very substantive and interesting, and I am very pleased to see that our discussion has spice and substance to it rather than being all dry talk.

Let’s not dig around now in the distant past. When it comes to who is to blame for the Soviet Union’s collapse, I think that internal reasons were the primary cause, of course, and in this sense, Mr Ambassador was right. The inefficiency of the former Soviet Union’s political and economic systems was the main cause of the state’s collapse.

But who gave this process a helping hand is another matter. I don’t think that our geopolitical adversaries were standing around idle, but internal reasons were nonetheless the primary cause. Mr Ambassador, as I understand it, was debating with me from afar, and now here, face to face, when he said that, unlike me, he does not consider the collapse of the Soviet Union one of the twentieth century’s great tragedies. For my part, I continue to insist that this was a tragedy, above all a humanitarian tragedy. This is what I was saying.

The Soviet collapse left 25 million Russians abroad. This just happened overnight and no one ever asked them. I repeat my argument that the Russian people became the world’s biggest divided nation, and this was unquestionably a tragedy. That is not to mention the socioeconomic dimension. The Soviet collapse brought down the social system and economy with it. Yes, the old economy was not very effective, but its collapse threw millions of people into poverty, and this was also a tragedy for individual people and families.

Now, on the question of continuing strategic offensive arms limitation talks, you are right to say that we do need to continue this dialogue. But at the same time, I cannot say that Russia and the United States have done nothing here. We did conclude a new treaty on limiting strategic offensive arms and set goals for limiting this type of weapons. However, the USA’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which was the cornerstone for preserving the balance of power and international security, has left this whole system in a serious and complicated state.

In this respect, since this is a discussion club, I would like to ask Mr Ambassador what he thinks of the USA’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

Jack Matlock: I was personally opposed to that withdrawal and I take your point. I would say that I don’t think that any subsequent plans for the sort of deployments were or could be a threat to Russian systems. But in general, I am not a supporter of ABM systems. I would point out that I think the main source of that is not to threaten Russia but to secure employment in the United States. A lot comes from the military-industrial complex and the number of people it employs.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Ambassador, I find your arguments unconvincing. I have the greatest respect for your experience and diplomatic skills, of which you have given us a flawless demonstration, avoiding a direct answer. Well, you did answer my question, but not without some embellishments.

One should not create jobs when the result of this activity threatens all of humanity. And if developing new missile defence systems is about creating jobs, why create them in this particular area? Why not create jobs in biology, pharmaceuticals, or in high-tech sectors not related to arms production?

On the question of whether this poses a threat to Russia or not, I can assure you that US security and strategic arms specialists are fully aware that this does threaten Russia’s nuclear capability, and that the whole purpose of this system is to reduce the nuclear capabilities of all countries but the USA itself to zero. We’ve been hearing arguments this whole time about the Iranian nuclear threat, but as I said in my remarks before, our position was always that there was no such threat, and now not only we but the entire international community share this view.

The United States initiated the signing of an agreement with Iran on settling the Iranian nuclear issue. We actively followed and supported our US and Iranian partners on the road to a common decision and this agreement has now come into force and Iran has agreed to send its enriched uranium out of the country. So if there is no Iranian nuclear problem, why develop a missile defence system? You could stop the project, but not only has the project not stopped, on the contrary, new tests and exercises are taking place. These systems will be in place in Romania by the end of the year and in Poland by 2018 or 2020.

As I can tell you, and the specialists know, the missile defence deployment sites can be used effectively for stationing cruise missile attack systems. Does this not create a threat for us? Of course it does, and it changes the very philosophy of international security. If one country thinks that it has created a missile defence shield that will protect it from any strikes or counter-strikes, it has its hands free to use whatever types of weapons it likes, and it is this that upsets the strategic balance. You have worked on arms agreements in the past and have achieved some amazing results. I can but take off my hat to you and congratulate you on this. You and your Russian partners have had some great successes, but what is happening now cannot fail to worry us. I am sure that you would agree with this in your heart. Essentially, you admitted as much when you said that you did not support the USA’s unilateral withdrawal from the treaty.

Now, on the subject of Ukraine, and on the idea that this creates dangers for us, yes, of course it creates dangers, but was it we who created this situation? Remember the year when Mr Yanukovych lost the election and Mr Yushchenko came to power? Look at how he came to power. It was through a third round of voting, which is not even in the Ukrainian Constitution’s provisions. The Western countries actively supported this. This was a complete violation of the Constitution. What kind of democracy is this? This is simply chaos. They did it once, and then did it again in even more flagrant form with the change of regime and coup d’état that took place in Ukraine not so long ago.

Russia’s position is not that we oppose the Ukrainian people’s choice. We are ready to accept any choice. Ukraine genuinely is a brotherly country in our eyes, a brotherly people. I don’t make any distinction between Russians and Ukrainians. But we oppose this method of changing the government. It is not a good method anywhere in the world, but it is completely unacceptable in the post-Soviet region, where, to be frank, many former Soviet republics do not yet have traditions of statehood and have not yet developed stable political systems. In this context, we need to take great care of what we do have and help it to develop. We were ready to work even with the people who came to power as a result of that unconstitutional third round back then. We worked with Mr Yushchenko and Ms Timoshenko, though they were considered to be completely pro-Western politicians – I think this is not an accurate label in general, but this was the way they were viewed. We met with them, travelled to Kiev, received them here in Russia. Yes, we sometimes had fierce debates on economic matters, but we did work together.

But what are we supposed to do when faced with a coup d’état? Do you want to organise an Iraq or Libya here? The US authorities have not hidden the fact that they are spending billions there. The authorities have said directly in public that they have spent $5 billion on supporting the opposition. Is this the right choice?

Another of our colleagues said that it is wrong to interpret things as suggesting that the United States seeks to change the political system and government in Russia. It is hard for me to agree with that argument. The United States has a law that concerns Ukraine, but it directly mentions Russia, and this law states that the goal is democratisation of the Russian Federation. Just imagine if we were to write into Russian law that our goal is to democratise the United States, though in principle we could do this, and let me tell you why.

There are grounds for this. Everyone knows that there were two occasions in US history when a president came to power with the votes of the majority of the electoral college members but the minority of voters. Is this democratic? No, democracy is the people’s power, the will of the majority. How can you have someone elected to the country’s highest office by only a minority of voters? This is a problem in your constitution, but we do not demand that you change your constitution.

We can debate all of this forever, but if you have a country writing such things into its domestic laws and financing the domestic opposition [of another country]… Having an opposition is a normal thing, but it must survive on its own resources, and if you have a country openly spending billions on supporting it, is this normal political practice? Will this help to build a spirit of trust at the interstate level? I don’t think so.

Now, on the subject of democracy moving closer to our borders. (Laughter). You seem to be an experienced person. Do you imagine we could be opposed to having democracy on our borders? What is it you call democracy here? Are you referring to NATO’s move towards our borders? Is that what you mean by democracy? NATO is a military alliance. We are worried not about democracy on our borders, but about military infrastructure coming ever closer to our borders. How do you expect us to respond in such a case? What are we to think? This is the issue that worries us.

You know what is at the heart of today’s problems? I will share it with you, and we will certainly make public the document I want to refer to now. It is a record of the discussions between German politicians and top Soviet officials just before Germany’s reunification. It makes for very interesting reading, just like reading a detective story.

One prominent German political figure of the time, a leader in the Social Democratic Party, said during the talks with the senior Russian officials – I can’t quote him word for word, but I remember the original closely enough – he said, “If we don’t reach agreement now on the principles for Germany’s reunification and Europe’s future, crises will continue and even grow after Germany’s reunification and we will not end them but only face them again in new forms.” Later, when the Soviet officials got into discussion with him, he was surprised and said, “You’d think I am defending the Soviet Union’s interests – reproaching them for their short-sighted views it seems – but I’m thinking about Europe’s future.” And he turned out to be absolutely right.

Mr Ambassador, your colleagues did not reach agreements then on the basic principles of what would follow Germany’s reunification: the question of prospective NATO membership for Germany, the future of military infrastructure, its forms and development, and the coordination of security issues in Europe. Oral agreements were reached back then, but nothing was put on paper, nothing fixed, and so it went from there. But as you all recall from my speech in Munich, when I made this point, back then, the NATO Secretary General gave the oral assurance that the Soviet Union could be sure that NATO – I quote – would not expand beyond the eastern borders of today’s GDR. And yet the reality was completely different. There were two waves of NATO expansion eastwards, and now we have missile defence systems right on our borders too.

I think that all of this raises legitimate concerns in our eyes, and this is something we certainly need to work on. Despite all the difficulties, we are willing to work together. On the serious issue of missile defence, we have already made past proposals and I say again that we could work together as a threesome – the USA, Russia, and Europe. What would this kind of cooperation entail? It would mean that all three parties agree together on the direction missile threats are coming from, and have equal part in the system’s command and in other secondary matters. But our proposals met with a refusal. It was not we who did not seek cooperation, but others who refused us.

Now we face the serious issue of what is happening in Syria, and I am sure this will be the subject of further discussion. We hear criticism that we are supposedly striking the wrong targets. I said recently, speaking in Moscow, “Tell us what are the right targets to hit if you know them,” but no, they don’t tell us. So we ask them to tell us which targets to avoid, but they still don’t answer us.

We have this excellent movie, Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession. The Russian audience knows it well. One of the movie’s characters says to the other, “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” Fortunately, at the military level at least, as I said before, we are starting to say something to each other and come to some agreements. The circumstances oblige us to do so.

The military people are the most responsible it seems, and I hope that if they can reach agreements, we will be able to reach agreements at the political level too.

Thank you.


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