The World According to Russia

A documentary on state television gives a glimpse of Vladimir Putin’s philosophy.

Vladimir Putin at his end-of-the-year news conference in Moscow (Maxim Smeyev / Reuters)

“Do you realize what you have done?” Vladimir Putin demanded at the United Nations in September. The question was a rebuke to the American-led bloc of countries that initially viewed with optimism the Arab Spring, which began five years ago this month, but has since given way to chaos and Islamist violence across once-stable parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Those events, and much else, look different when viewed from Russia than they do from the United States, and a documentary that aired recently on Russian state television helps explain the worldview behind Putin’s question.

The two-hour-plus film, Miroporyadok (World Order), explores, in the words of its narrator Vladimir Solovyov, “what is happening with us [Russians], what sort of world we have inherited from our parents, and what sort of world we will leave to our children.” Partly through interviews with the Russian president himself, it also offers a window on Putin’s own realpolitik perspective, one that I’ve found to be widely shared throughout Russia over many years of living in the country—a worldview according to which international relations consist of competing blocs of nations pursuing their interests, and the violation of sovereignty is a recipe for instability. This stands in contrast to Obama’s own position, which he stated at the UN two years ago, that “sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter.”

“I believe,” Putin tells Solovyov, “that no one should ever impose any sort of values he considers correct on anyone. We have our own values, our own conceptions of justice.” Putin doesn’t name names here, but the implication is clear throughout: World Order endeavors to incriminate American foreign policy and place the blame for the current chaos in the Middle East on the United States. The film’s anti-Americanism is subtle but relentless, and the spin comes mostly from omission of relevant facts. And though it originated within the Russian state propaganda machine, some of its criticisms of wrongheaded U.S. policies and blundering interventions in the Middle East since September 11, 2001, would give American liberals, centrists, and even a few conservatives little cause for dispute. Yet the documentary goes further, leaving the strong impression that greedy, bungling, incorrigibly myopic conspirators “from across the ocean” (a phrase Putin uses repeatedly in the film to describe the U.S. leadership) bent on world domination are to blame; Russia comes off as unjustly demonized and Russians themselves forced to suffer economically as a result.

The last point is not stated, but is implied, and gives another clue about how the world looks from Russia. For Russians, to a degree unthinkable in the United States, foreign policy is also domestic policy, not least because their Near Abroad includes Ukraine, with which their ties of blood, history, and culture remain intimate. And thanks to multiple invasions of Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries, a preoccupation with national security and national pride figure strongly in Russian politics, with the possibility of war not at all remote. A philosophy of realpolitik—and not, say, values promotion—would come naturally under the circumstances.

Indeed, as the film tells it, the root of all international evils is the American penchant for democracy-spreading, both subtle (via U.S. support for “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet sphere) and overt (as in overthrowing Saddam Hussein). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declares that the Arab Spring was fomented from abroad, disregarding the Middle Eastern region’s widespread popular discontent with official corruption, political stasis, and lack of job opportunities. The United States intervenes despite bitter experience within living memory; the American director Oliver Stone appears onscreen to tell viewers that “America didn’t learn the lesson of Vietnam, which is you shouldn’t go around invading other countries.”

But Putin denies chiding Obama directly at the UN for the consequences of the Arab Spring. “I wasn’t saying this [to President Obama]” Putin tells Solovyov, but to the constellation of leaders, both American and European, who have been meddling in Muslim lands since 2001. “I have always been telling [these leaders] that they have to act carefully. It’s wrong to impose one’s scheme ... of ideas concerning good and evil, or in this case, good and democracy,” on countries “with differing cultures, a different religion, with other traditions. But frankly, no one listens, because they apparently consider themselves infallible and great.” No one, he adds, holds those leaders accountable, whatever the outcome. When an “operation” produces the wrong results, Putin says, the (again, unnamed) leaders in question just say, “Oh well. Next!” After all, “They’re great and sitting across the ocean, the dollar is the world’s currency, they have the biggest economy in the world.”

The “operations” to which Putin refers include, of course, the 2003 Iraq war, which Russia, France, and Germany opposed. Then-French President Jacques Chiraq, Putin claims, even foresaw that terrorist attacks in Europe, resembling those that occurred in Paris this year, could grow out of the anarchy that would result from Saddam’s overthrow. Another is the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 (to prevent the regime from using its air force to stage a massacre—a fact that goes unmentioned). The film replays video of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark, delivered with a callous laugh, about Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s subsequent death—“We came, we saw, he died!”—followed by footage of the tyrant’s brutal murder, which drives home the real-life consequences of the intervention and its bloody aftermath. (Eerily, the film also shows Qaddafi addressing Arab leaders at a 2011 Arab League summit, and asking, after Saddam Hussein’s execution, “Who among you is next?”)

The Wikileaks founder Julian Assange also makes an appearance, citing cables revealing U.S. efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—though American officials continue to maintain that Assad must go eventually, the cables in question most likely concern Wikileaks revelations made in 2006. The film shows Syrians lamenting the chaos the presumably American-backed terrorists have unleashed. No mention is made of Assad’s murderous crackdown on the demonstrations that set off the revolt, or of the barrel bombs deployed against civilians to this day at great cost to civilian life, or of the U.S. air campaign against ISIS.

But the message of World Order, as the title implies, extends geographically wider and historically further back than America’s post-September 11 policies in the Middle East. As the film, and presumably Putin, have it, the real problem today is not the rise of ISIS but the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West. A key cause of this conflict has been the eastward expansion of NATO since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, which has brought with it the stationing of troops on Russia’s border with the Baltics, plans to one day admit Ukraine (and Georgia), and, as an eventual result, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

“Why did [the West] support the coup?” Putin asks, using his term for the uprisings that brought the ouster of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. He cites Western fears that Russia was trying to recreate the Soviet Union. “I think many of our partners see they made a mistake, but just don’t want to admit it. They took advantage of popular discontent not just with Yanukovych, but going back to independence. ... Does anyone think things are better there now?”

Few would dispute Putin’s damning description of Ukraine’s post-Maidan straits: “The standard of living has fallen catastrophically. ... What have they gotten in return? Possibly [Ukrainians] will be allowed to travel to Europe without a visa. And possibly not.”

But Putin emphasizes that he does not blame Europeans for the policies of the United States, since, in his view, they are nothing more than “vassals” taking orders “from across the ocean,” at least as far as foreign policy goes. He surely understands the relationship to be more complicated than that, but such an approach places the blame for the standoff between Russia and the West on America, and lets him make a direct overture to Europe. “We don’t expect our European partners to give up their Euro-Atlantic orientation” but they would do well to “unite with Russia” to resolve “economic, political, security, and economic problems. ... We are ready to work with them and aren’t about to pout about the sanctions,” he says.

Significantly, though he never rules out cooperation, Putin makes no such overture to the United States. Rather, the film closes with Solovyov asking him the question used to tease viewers in the intro: Will there be war—World War III, in particular?

Probably not, Putin responds, as long as no crazy individual decides to use nuclear weapons and start it. But just in case, “Russia will continue perfecting its [nuclear] weapons. The nuclear triad forms the basis of our security policy. We have never brandished our nuclear bludgeon, and never will, but it retains its proper place and role in our military doctrine.”

The upshot, according to World Order: Putin considers possible a renewed relationship with Europe, but sees no such likelihood with the United States. This is one area where the views from Washington and Moscow aren’t so different—and that is bad news.