A new documentary screened on Russian state TV offers little new in the Kremlin’s approach to foreign policy but leaves Vladimir Putin looking surprisingly sanguine on relations with the West and reveals contradictions in his policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting of the Presidential Council for Culture and Art in the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / Pool Photo via AP
In late December the Rossiya 1 TV channel premiered another documentary starring Russian President Vladimir Putin, the third one in 2015. Previously, the channel had showed Crimea: The Way Home, dedicated to the first anniversary of the accession of Crimea to Russia, and The President, commemorating Putin's first presidential term, which started 15 years ago.
The new documentary, titled World Order, is not officially tied to any historic event, but quite accurately reflects a key trend in Russian politics towards the end of 2015: The Kremlin is striving to shift attention away from domestic issues and problems on Russia's borders to flaws in the global order and relations between superpowers.
The film is the work of renowned pro-government journalist and TV personality Vladimir Solovyov, who frequently records extended interviews with Putin. That comes as no surprise: Solovyov is extremely loyal to the party in power and never asks difficult questions.
Nevertheless, the documentary was highly anticipated following the release of the preview. The title itself implied that Putin and the other influential figures who agreed to be featured in the movie would have something new to say about the current state of international relations, Russia's plans in Syria, and its strategy on cooperation with the U.S., Europe, China, and other key global players.
Short on originality
However, almost all expectations proved futile. The film turned out to be exceptionally boring and predictable. Neither Putin, nor the other people who shared their views in the movie had anything original to say.
The storyline followed the talking points from Putin's infamous 2007 Munich speech: American hegemony, the inadmissibility of breaking international laws, the damaging consequences of color revolutions, etc.
The documentary, which lasted over two hours, can be summed up in one sentence: By irresponsibly interfering with the internal affairs of sovereign states and disturbed the Greater Middle East, the U.S. has increased the international terrorist threat. Russia is taking a more reasonable approach and encourages everyone to comply with the United Nations Charter.
To further its points and prove its allegations, the film showed footage from Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Syria. Famous Australian whistleblower Julian Assange, well-known U.S. film director Oliver Stone, and former French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn played the part of prosecutors condemning the U.S. and its role in the existing world order.
The main idea of the documentary was to be furthered by former Israeli and Pakistani leaders Shimon Peres and Pervez Musharraf, but it remained unclear what exactly they were supposed to be contributing.
Quite unexpectedly, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president's press spokesperson, provided the most profound insight into the theory of international relations by talking about the Americans' failure to implement their strategy of "checked chaos" in the Middle East.
Anyway, savvy Russian viewers harbored no illusions: The expert opinion and documentary footage were auxiliaries meant to highlight and provide a quality media entourage for Putin's words. He was expected to make revelations, surprise with unorthodox judgments, and unveil the secrets of global diplomacy.
Also read: "'The President' and the cult of personality 2.0"
But this time, unlike in the interview with Andrei Kondrashov on Crimea, was not the time to open up. Putin did not give in to emotions, shared no radical opinions, and did not speak about the historical predetermination of the conflict with the West or something along those lines.
On the contrary, several times during the interview Putin intentionally softened the bitter anti-Western rhetoric of Solovyov's leading questions by saying, "No, invading Afghanistan was definitely a mistake on the part of the Soviet leadership"; "No, the U.S. did not just decide to put strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. They have had them there for a long time"; "No, our relationship with the West is not only confrontational, we are also partners," etc.
Next to Assange's and Stone's remarks, such responses made Putin look like a loyal representative of the global establishment whose discontent does not go beyond criticizing the excessive influence of the U.S. and who is generally hoping to work together with the West and its leaders.
It is hard to tell whether the authors intended to portray Putin as a wise and contemplative critic of the West, but ultimately that was the picture that they painted.
At the same time, Putin's ruminations on the sources of the international crisis exposed some obvious contradictions in his stance, and attentive viewers definitely picked up on that.
For example, when comparing American and Russian foreign policies, Putin claimed that Russia was acting more cautiously and carefully in accordance with the U.N. Charter. When explaining why that was the case, he referred to the economic and political might of the U.S. which, supposedly, let Washington act irresponsibly, like a bull in a china shop.
However, Putin did not say anything as to why Russia's foreign policy in 2014-2015 started to look more and more like its American counterpart, with the same unpredictable, spontaneous decisions, double standards with regards to international law, and military operations abroad. Does that mean that Russia's economic potential rivals that of the U.S. and now we can afford a firmer foreign policy?
Another contradiction surfaced when Putin started talking about the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Contrary to the officially proclaimed goals of the Russian military operation in Syria, the president stated that "the fight against ISIS is not the end point that everything is going to revolve around. The development of relations in this geopolitical battle has critical implications for the future."
In other words, Putin confirmed that Russia came to Syria not to destroy ISIS, but to uphold its geopolitical interests in the ongoing confrontation with other superpowers.
The documentary paid a lot of attention to disclosing and discrediting Europe's supposed vassalage to Washington. Putin expressed regret that Europe had very few independent politicians that could be reasoned with. Still, he indicated that he was confident that such state of affairs was not meant to last, and everything would change soon. As for Russia, it would not be fazed by sanctions or hold a grudge. It is always open for cooperation.
Read Russia Direct's new report: "Russia and the World: Foreign Policy Outlook 2016"
At the moment though, Putin does not believe that Europe can be a point of reference for the former republics of the U.S.S.R. For example, Ukrainians' options in Europe include nursing, garden work, and construction, while siding with Russia would translate into leading positions in aviation, microelectronics, and research. The president did not explain how this perspective correlates with the current sad state of Russian science and microelectronics.
Although World Order did not meet viewers' expectations, it gave several reasons to be optimistic. Judging by his carefully crafted image, Putin is not going to become another Napoleon or Alexander the Great.
His version of international relations sounds less like the ideas of a dictator or conqueror and more like the lectures of a high school disciplinarian. And that is one reason to be happy.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.