What and why of the speeches by Russian and US presidents

President Putin addressed his nation on Sept 21, followed by President Biden’s address to the UNGA on Sept 22


Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan September 25, 2022
The writer is associated with International Relations Department of DHA Suffa University, Karachi. He tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

It’s not every day that one gets to hear, within a gap of 24 hours, the speeches of both the American and the Russian presidents. President Vladimir Putin addressed his nation on Sept 21, followed by President Joe Biden’s address to the UN General Assembly on Sept 22. To a student of International Relations, it is an absolute treat to hear first-hand from the leaders of the two nations locked in a great global power struggle and conflict. Understandably, Biden had to speak on multilateral issues concerning the US and the globe but it was his response to some of the comments made by Putin during his speech a day prior that made very interesting this once in a while phenomenon of speech and counter speech making within 24 hours by these leaders.

Putin was very focused, determined, and to the point during his seven-minute speech. He spoke about the positive Ukrainian response to the Russian proposals during the Istanbul talks which did not materialise because he considers that these proposals didn’t suit the West and thus the West ended up pumping in more weapons and mercenaries in the theatre of operations to fight against Russia. Putin accused the US of repeating what it did in 1991 — playing a major role in the USSR’s disintegration. He told his people that the plan remained the same — to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy Russia. He blamed West for building for decades an anti-Russian bridgehead and for committing genocide against the people of breakaway Ukrainian republics that refused to accept and recognise the western supported and imposed Ukrainian government in 2014.

Putin told his nation that Lugansk has been completely liberated and operations will continue for the liberation of Donetsk, emphasising that Russia will not back away from continuing to pursue the attainment of its main goal — the liberation of the whole Donbas region. He also said the combined population of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporozhe region was 7.5 million which after displacement of the people has been reduced to 5 million people. However, the President said Russia would do everything to create safe conditions for holding the referendum which the parliaments of these states have decided to hold. He linked the call-up of military reservists with the fact that Russia was now fighting on a line of contact that was 1000 km long against the military machine that had an absolute support of the entire West. Accusing the West of resorting to nuclear blackmail as some of the high-ranking representatives of the NATO countries had threatened to use WMDs against Russia, he said the West has gone too far in its aggressive anti-Russian policy. Putin said his country had different type of weapons than what West has and threatened to use all weapons systems if it came to defending the territorial integrity of Russia, insisting: “This is not a bluff.”

President Biden was very clear in how he responded to what Putin had said during his speech. He called the war in Ukraine as brutal and needless, chosen by one man. He accused Russia of shamelessly violating the core tenants of UN charter, one of them being taking over the territory of your neighbours by force. He expressed unflinching solidarity with Ukraine and pointed out Russia for making an irresponsible nuclear threat and said that if this war has to end it must end on just terms.

Listening to the two speeches, the immediate impression that one gets is that Russia will not bow down; it will not concede to any economic or military pressure that the West is trying to build. One also gets an impression that with Russian military reservists being called up, the military engagements will further escalate and may increase in size and proportion.

The US is a global hegemon and has, on the pretext of defending international law and safeguarding international rules, metaphorically taken over the role of a preacher who thinks that his audience is unfamiliar with his own past indulgence. The American history is full of instances where it has violated international laws and rules; interfered in other countries affairs; waged unnecessary wars; made arms sales to the enemies of its adversaries; promoted colour revolutions; plotted coups; launched attacks on countries without UN authorization; executed special military operations to assassinate targets in violation to the sovereignty of other countries; established military bases and deployed offensive weapons to threaten the security of other countries; maintained illegal detention centres; and pardoned its armed forces personnel and employees of private security companies like Black Water who committed massacres and war crimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The US would top the list of the countries violating international rules and laws and getting away with it without being held accountable; and that is what causes resentment in the other two great powers — Russia and China — that can challenge the US hegemony.

In Biden’s speech, one can find the ‘what’ of the Russia-Ukraine war but it is in Putin’s speech that the ‘why’ of this war is described. Needlessness, brutality, one man’s choice and taking over the neighbour’s territory by force are all the ‘whats’ in President Biden’s speech that the entire world will appreciate, yet it is extremely important for the world to understand ‘why’ Putin is doing what he is doing. His motivation stems from history of how Russia has been invaded a number of times in the past; and although this time it is not the West’s classic attempt of invading Russia but Russia’s current encirclement by NATO, Russia’s diminishing buffer zones on its frontiers and countries giving up their historic war time neutrality and joining NATO that are considerable geostrategic threats warranting Russian strategic response. The likely future militarisation of the Baltic and the Black Sea with the NATO military machines and West’s encroachment of Russian sphere of influence are good enough compelling motives for Russia to take all preventive measures to ensure its safety and security. Wouldn’t the US do the same if it was not a sea power protected by Atlantic on the one side and Pacific on the other, rather than a land power like Russia that has vulnerable frontiers that it must guard?

The US and the West need to understand the geopolitical insecurities of both Russia and China. Instead of sounding as the defender and a global messiah of international laws and rules, what the US needs to do is to find the right impulse for engagement with Russia. Both world leaders must see the bigger picture as it is only through engagement and dialogue that the worsening economic, political and military conditions of this war can be avoided.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2022.

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