In his clearest statement yet on Russia's long-term intentions toward Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia believes in a peaceful outcome to the crisis and is prepared to work with whomever the Ukrainian people choose as their next president in polls slated for Sunday.
His forum was the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia's most important megaphone for explaining its economic policies and intentions to the world. It is usually attended by the CEOs of most global companies with even the vaguest hopes of doing business in Russia. Droves of interested academics, journalists, and officials also come along. This year the turnout was more sparse, after the White House warned corporate leaders that it would be "inappropriate" to be seen hobnobbing with top Russian officials amid the allegedly Russian-orchestrated turmoil in Ukraine.
Sounding more upbeat than he has in quite awhile, Mr. Putin told the audience that what looks like an onrushing new cold war between East and West is not inevitable. But he added that Washington must recognize that the idea of a US-dominated "unipolar world" has failed, and it's time to create a new global order.
Putin admitted that Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine have had a mildly chilling impact on business, but he also warned that any systemic attempt to exclude Russia from global markets would have a "boomerang effect."
"The world is rapidly changing, and we are witnessing colossal geopolitical, technological, and structural shifts," Putin said. He argued that Washington is not recognizing the emergence of major non-Western poles of economic and political power, and is trying to shut out different voices and to stall reform of key global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
He urged assembled foreign investors "not to give in to pressure and blackmail" from Western leaders anxious to teach Moscow political lessons. Asked about President Barack Obama's occasionally harsh rhetoric, directed personally at Putin, the Russian leader quipped: "Who made him a judge?"
Putin added that the crisis over Ukraine has demonstrated that the global system is strained to the breaking point, and it's time to abandon the "archaic logic of geopolitical games" and start a real global dialogue.
Warning that Ukraine is sliding into a "real civil war," Putin insisted that Russia is not the source of the tensions. "We want to calm the situation and we will respect any choice Ukrainian people make," he said. "I just hope the violence will halt after these elections. We will work with the new Ukrainian authorities."
No membership in NATO
Moscow still blames the US for backing the "coup" that unexpectedly brought a pro-Western interim government to power amid mass disorders in Kiev in February. But Putin finally stated explicitly what many experts have long argued is Russia's bottom line: Ukraine must not join NATO.
"This is the key red line for Moscow, a Ukraine in NATO is Russia's worst strategic nightmare," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "Putin is putting that out there as a signal of what Russia will or won't accept in the endgame over Ukraine. He will want to see legally binding assurances of Ukraine's neutrality. Beyond that, the signal seems to be that Russia can compromise on many other things."
Not about Crimea, the Black Sea territory that Russia annexed in March, however. Putin argued that Moscow saved the mainly Russian inhabitants of Crimea from turmoil. The unmistakable message was that there will be no re-opening of that subject.
In another sign that tensions with Ukraine may be easing, at least for now, Russia indicated Friday that might soon permit Ukrainian reconnaissance flights over Russian territory under the "Open Skies" program to verify that Russian military forces formerly massed near the Ukrainian border have been withdrawn to their bases, as Putin earlier pledged.
"Putin described Russia's zone of interests, and made very clear that we will stand up for what matters to us," says Dmitry Orlov, a pro-Kremlin analyst and director of the independent Agency of Political and Economic Communications in Moscow. "It was a positive message to everyone, meant to improve cooperation and not to stoke conflict."
But Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, says that if Putin's intention was to calm the global investor community and suggest that everyone return to business-as-usual, it probably didn't work.
"The root problem is the unpredictability of Putin himself and his government," he says. "This is why the situation is difficult, and will probably remain so."