Putin Rallies Against Soft Power, Humanitarian Interventions

The Russian leader claims the West uses nongovernmental organizations to undermine unfriendly regimes.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia addresses the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland, January 28, 2009
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia addresses the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland, January 28, 2009 (WEF/Sebastian Derungs)

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who is likely to be reelected president on Sunday, has alleged that Western countries use nongovernmental organizations as tools of their foreign policy in an effort to undermine unfriendly regimes.

In an article that was published in Moskovskiye Novosti and translated by The Moscow Times, the Russian leader observes the increased use of “soft power” which, he writes, “implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence.”

Although aid and charitable organizations that “criticize the current authorities” are perfectly permissible, “the activities of ‘pseudo-NGOs’ and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable,” according to Putin.

I’m referring to those cases where the activities of NGOs are not based on the interests (and resources) of local social groups but are funded and supported by outside forces.

Russia has longer been critical of Western NGOs that seek to support civil society and foment democracy abroad. In Moscow’s view, such organizations aided the color revolutions that swept former Soviet satellite republics in the early 2000s, including Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. In both instances, a pro-Russian leader was replaced by a pro-Western counterpart.

In Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili is still in power. Russia waged war against his country in 2008 after Saakashvili ordered the invasion of South Ossetia, a breakaway Georgian province that Russia has since recognized as an independent state.

In Ukraine, Moscow backed Viktor Yanukovich for the 2010 election. The reformist president Viktor Yushchenko failed to qualify for a second round of voting although he played a key role in the Orange Revolution.

American support of Saakashvili and Yushchenko was part of a Bush Administration “freedom agenda” which assumed that democratic and free states would naturally be more conducive to Washington’s interests. Their presidential elections were touted as successes in this strategy but the United States refused to come to Georgia’s aid in 2008 in support of its territorial claims.

The Obama Administration appears less determined to see regime change in Russia’s backyard. However, according to Putin, nongovernmental organizations were deployed to similar ends in the Arab world, facilitating last year’s unrest.

Russia initially welcomed the “Arab Spring,” writes Putin, but it has not inspired the sort of change that he can believe in.

Instead of asserting democracy and protecting the rights of the minority, attempts were being made to depose an enemy and to stage a coup, which only resulted in the replacement of one dominant force with another even more aggressive dominant force.

Western support of rebel forces has made the situation worse, he believes, because it legitimized an opposition, whatever its aims.

The Russian leader criticizes foreign interventions in his treatise, noting that armed conflicts that were started under a pretext of humanitarian protection undermined the principle of state sovereignty, “creating a moral and legal void in the practice of international relations.”

[W]hen state sovereignty is too easily violated in the name of this provision, when human rights are protected from abroad and on a selective basis and when the same rights of a population are trampled underfoot in the process of such “protection,” including the most basic and sacred right — the right to one’s life — these actions cannot be considered a noble mission but rather outright demagogy.

Because such humanitarian interventions are conducted on an almost arbitrary basis, moreover, they risk aggravating a dangerous situation in a region where democracy versus dictatorship is hardly the only dividing line.

Putin suggests that it has even emboldened Iran’s nuclear aspirations rather than weakened them because an atomic weapons capacity would likely deter American or Israeli military action against it.

If I have the A-bomb in my pocket, nobody will touch me because it’s more trouble than it’s is worth. And those who don’t have the bomb might have to sit and wait for “humanitarian intervention.”

“Whether we like it or not,” he observes, “foreign interference suggests this train of thought.”