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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Thinking Needed

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In recent years, speculation has swirled ahead of President Vladimir Putin's annual state-of-the-nation addresses that the main thrust of the speech would be about foreign affairs. Each year there appeared to be special circumstances that called for the president to lay out his vision of the situation in the world.

In 2005, the buzz was about Russia's role in the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Last year, with Russia chairing the Group of Eight, the word was that Putin would deal in more depth with global problems. Prior to Thursday's speech, everyone thought Putin would sum up the results of his two terms in office.

Every prediction was wrong. This is Putin's style; his dislikes doing what others expect him to do. However, each of the last three state-of-the-nation addresses did contain remarks about foreign policy that became the subject of much discussion.

In 2005, it was Putin's sensational statement calling the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." In 2006, it was his thinly veiled reference to the United States, whom he called a "Comrade Wolf" ready to devour whatever it wanted. In his speech this week, Putin announced the suspension of Russia's participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

The evolution of these statements is telling. Two years ago the Kremlin simply stated that it had its own perception of the world. The West did not fully understand what Putin meant with his reference to the Soviet collapse. He was not grieving over the loss of the superpower, as his words were interpreted. He meant that the disappearance of such a gigantic empire prompted changes we are not yet fully able to measure. But we must adapt to those changes.

A year later, Putin offered an evaluation of Russia's main political partner. He sarcastically expressed his disappointment with the United States' inability to understand Russia's position. He voiced these same thoughts more aggressively during his speech in Munich in February of this year.

In his final state-of-the-nation address, the president has progressed to concrete actions, threatening to reconsider Russia's treaty obligations in Europe. In Munich, Putin expressed doubts about the treaty limiting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. In Moscow, he questioned the CFE Treaty.

Of course, the recasting of the Russian position should be considered in the context of the Kremlin's mood swings. With an unflagging stream of petrodollars pouring in, and with Western countries mired down in various problems, Russia is experiencing an exaggerated feeling of self-confidence. But the wisdom of rejecting international obligations as a foreign policy tactic remains to be seen. With a little intellectual exertion, one could find more graceful ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

Discussions of Moscow's growing swagger should not overshadow the main cause behind the increasing number of clashes between Russia and the West, which is the fact that the international security system is based on Cold War conditions. Even under changed circumstances, there is a tendency to revert to the old way.

The CFE Treaty established a balance of power between the Soviets and Europeans based on conditions in 1990. Since then, Europe has changed beyond recognition, and the failure to update the treaty has created an absurd situation. Past attempts to change the treaty have run up against problems that were unforeseeable 17 years ago -- namely, the existence of unauthorized territorial-ethnic conflicts that touch upon questions like the right to national self-determination and the principle of territorial integrity. These problems lead to increasing conflicts.

NATO has changed but has yet to formulate a new mission to match current circumstances. And as NATO expansion proceeds, Moscow's fears only cause irritation in Western capitals. They seem unable to understand why Russia would feel threatened.

It is unclear what is happening with today's strategic agenda. The Cold War approach is inadequate now. Since serious strategic games are starting up in Europe, it is necessary to treat them with the same gravity that marked the mutual restraint of the past epoch. Otherwise, both sides will only provoke each other rather than seek agreement on common rules governing behavior. From this point of view, Putin's attempt to reform the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, seems sensible. However, the West has shown little interest in the proposal and is content to keep the OSCE on the back burner.

The current world order differs radically from that of 20 years ago, and even from the situation 10 years ago. Attempts to adapt former institutions to meet today's challenges only lead to new misunderstandings. The West is becoming increasingly convinced that Russia is returning to its old unconstructive superpower politics. And Russian discontent stems from a paranoid "besieged fortress" mentality that sees foreign money flowing into destabilize the regime. Twenty years ago, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed his "new thinking for our country and the world." On the anniversary of that declaration, it would be worthwhile to make another attempt at formulating a new vision of the world and a fundamentally new approach to solving its problems.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.