Apart from turning the global chessboard upside down by annexing Crimea, President Vladimir Putin has done something else—he set the Law of Unintended Consequences in motion, thus awaking the slumbering West, revitalizing the transatlantic ties, and even prompting President Barack Obama to visit Europe. By destroying the post-Cold War order, Putin has forced the world to reflect on this now bygone order as well as on the order that will be more in tune with the contemporary challenges. I will venture a guess that the order that Putin destroyed could not have been stable since it rested on hopes and imitations.

Lilia Shevtsova
Shevtsova chaired the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, dividing her time between Carnegie’s offices in Washington, DC, and Moscow. She had been with Carnegie since 1995.
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The shakeup that Putin has given the world thrusts us into a discussion on the future strategic dimension, the fundamentals of the world order, and the new model of development. Recent fuzziness and amorphousness are now all gone, and the picture has become a lot clearer. It is now evident that today’s world is again facing the civilizational choice which will to a large extent determine the nature of the global order. This choice was recently expressed in the speeches of two leaders representing two civilizations with starkly different norms. These differences had been blurred until very recently, but they have become crystal-clear today.

I am referring to Russia and the United States and Putin’s and Obama’s speeches delivered on March 18 and 26 respectively.

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian leader so blatantly defined the Russian trajectory—not into the future, but into the past. It is the first time that the Kremlin cast aside its previous attempts to imitate Western principles, announcing its return to the Russian Matrix of the past century. This Matrix is grounded in military force, struggle for territory, containing all alien ideology and moral principles, protecting “Russianness” as the foundation of the empire and the Kremlin’s interpretation of international law.

Putin’s vocabulary lacks the concepts of freedom, dignity, tolerance and diversity. Even his understanding of democracy and constitutional norms proceeds from his understanding of military might and territory. Returning to the sixteenth century values and principles in the twenty-first century apparently does not fluster him.

In stark contrast, President Obama’s address presented an entirely different view of society and the world. True, the American president can be criticized for failing to implement many of his ideas. However, it is all about the principles that he now declared. In fact, he presented an alternative to the Russian Matrix. Obama spoke about society founded on the ideas of freedom, saying that “each of us has the right to live as we chose,” adding that “power is derived from the consent of the governed.” He was talking about the “universal ideas” of freedom, human dignity, rule of law, and individual rights. It was not merely political rhetoric but a different way to conceive of one’s leadership. By saying “We are human, after all, and we face difficult decisions about how to exercise our power,” Obama did not only recognize the limitations imposed on his leadership by the liberal democratic order but also his humanity, hence his right to mistakes and imperfection.

In this respect, Obama is also fundamentally different from Putin, who tried to crush everyone with the royal splendor of his office and a claim to the sanctity of his rhetoric.

We, the experts, can stop arguing on Russia’s trajectory. We just have to read or listen to the speeches of the two presidents to see what they stand for and what abyss separates the two civilizations that they represent.

  • Lilia Shevtsova