Putin warns against a fight of 'all against all' as the walls close in around him

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Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin in a new speech on Wednesday warned about the potential for global conflict.

  • Putin said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions worldwide, and it could result in "a fight of all against all."

  • The Russian leader's remarks came as he faced unrest at home and a new, more assertive US president.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Facing escalating challenges at home and abroad, Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech on Wednesday expressed alarm about the potential for a world war.

Addressing a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum (typically held in Davos, Switzerland), the Russian leader said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing tensions in the international community.

Putin warned that "international institutions are weakening, regional conflicts are multiplying, [and] the global security system is degrading." He likened the present situation to the 1920s and 1930s, when disagreements between global powers spiraled out of control and sparked the bloodiest war in recorded history.

"In the 20th century, the failure and inability to centrally resolve such issues resulted in the catastrophic World War II. Of course, nowadays such a heated conflict is not possible, I hope that it's not possible in principle, because it would mean the end of our civilization," Putin said.

"But I would like to reiterate, that the situation might develop unpredictably and uncontrollably if we will sit on our hands doing nothing to avoid it," Putin added. "And there is a possibility that we may experience an actual collapse of global development that might result in a fight of all against all."

Putin is facing major unrest in Russia

Alexei Navalny Protest
People clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia on January 23, 2021. Dmitri Lovetsky

On Tuesday, Putin spoke with President Joe Biden for the first time since the US leader's inauguration last week. Biden pressed Putin on an array of issues, including the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. The Russian government has been widely accused of poisoning Navalny, who's Putin's most prominent critic, but the Kremlin has rejected these allegations.

Navalny was recently arrested as he returned to Moscow after receiving treatment in Germany following his poisoning in Siberia last August. The Biden administration has demanded Navalny be released.

"Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable. The Kremlin's attacks on Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard," Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, tweeted on January 17.

The State Department on Saturday said that the US "strongly condemns the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia."

"The swift reaction by the State Department was registered here as a sign that the Biden administration will actively interfere in Russian politics," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Monday, per NBC News.

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally in Moscow
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally in Moscow REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Navalny's arrest has sparked mass protests in Russia. Thousands have been arrested at the demonstrations, and Putin is facing criticism from leaders across the world amid talks of fresh sanctions against Russia by Western powers. Russia has already faced economic consequences from the US and others over the 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as its interference in US elections.

The harsh crackdown on the Navalny protests by Russian authorities has evidently done little to dissuade the demonstrations.

"To judge by the government's response, it knows it has trouble on its hands. The crackdown is breaking records," Alexey Kovalev, the investigations editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet, wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week.

Kovalev said the "acts of defiance and escalation" on display from Russians have "underscored the depth of popular dissatisfaction with life under President Vladimir Putin."

In Moscow, where roughly 20,000 gathered to protest Navalny's detention over the weekend, demonstrators could be heard chanting: "Putin is a thief!"

A new era for the Russian leader, without a subservient US president

Putin's autocratic policies - on top of Russia's aggressive military activities under his leadership - have left him increasingly isolated on the global stage.

Last year, Putin held a national referendum on a number of constitutional amendments - including to extend his time in office. The referendum passed and Putin, who's already been in power for 20 years, can remain in office until 2036 as a result. Critics have said this effectively makes Putin president for life, comparing him to post-Soviet dictators.

The Kremlin's support for pro-Russian separatists at war with the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine is also an ongoing point of concern for the US and Europe, among others. Biden emphasized US support for Ukrainian sovereignty in his call with Putin on Tuesday.

With former President Donald Trump no longer in the White House, the Russian leader is now facing an American leader who's willing to openly challenge him.

The White House on Tuesday said that beyond the Navalny situation, Biden pressed Putin on the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, and interference in the 2020 United States election. The Kremlin's summary of the call did not mention any of this, but touted Putin's desire for the normalization of US-Russia relations as well as the effort from both countries to extend the New START nuclear arms treaty.

Trump, Putin
President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to waiting media during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Trump habitually avoided criticizing Putin or taking a stand against his anti-democratic streak, often showering the Russian leader with praise instead. Experts on authoritarianism warned that Trump emboldened Putin and other autocratic leaders like the Russian president by being too soft on him.

Putin has now entered a new era and his remarks on Wednesday - marking his first Davos speech since 2009 - could indicate that he's starting to feel the walls close in around him. After years of sowing discord across the globe, from Syria to Ukraine, Putin on Wednesday preached about the need for global cooperation. With growing unrest on the home-front, Putin can't afford to turn the world against him even more than it already has.

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