I promised a readout of my impressions of the Valdai Club meeting. This was the first time I had been invited to attend this event and I was curious to get a sense of both the content of the discussions and the atmosphere. The four day conference was held at a Gazprom-owned mountain resort an hour outside of Sochi, though after the first day we had virtually no opportunities to go outside, much less leave the compound. When I decided to take a walk in the hills during the lunch break on the last day of the conference, I was very nicely told by the guard at the gate in the fence that the gate was closed for the day (almost certainly because that was the day that Vladimir Putin was supposed to appear). That was very indicative of the setup. Having a conference in a beautiful mountain resort is very nice, but it’s also a good way to keep the participants from wandering off or seeing anything the organizers might not want them to see.
1) I had not realized just how little of the conference would be on Russia. The theme was “Creative Destruction: Will a New World Order Emerge from the Current Conflicts?” The individual panels within that theme were all on grand topics such as man vs. nature or rich vs. poor. There was one panel on “the conflict between differing geopolitical worldviews,” where most of the panelists ended up either spouting self-serving formulations of the “China just wants to share its prosperity with the world” variety or seemed bizarrely naïve, such as one European speaker arguing that Britain would not leave the European Union and Europe would be just fine. A Russian scholar talked about how the US and Russia were engaged in a new Cold War that was even worse than the old one and of course this was America’s fault. The one exception was a prominent American IR scholar, who tried to bring some sense to the proceedings, but with limited success.
The surreal nature of the choice of panel topics was highlighted by the special panel on US domestic politics. First, its presence on the program highlighted the absence of a panel on Russian domestic politics. Second, the speakers included a senior Russian diplomat and two highly respected American experts on Russian politics. Absent were any experts on US politics, which lent the proceedings a slightly odd air, even as the participants did their best to explain the Trump presidency to the audience.
The best panel was another special panel – on the Russian revolution in honor of its 100th anniversary, with five top historians giving their interpretations of the meaning and impact of the revolution on Russia and the world. Overall, though, it seemed odd to gather a large number of experts on Russia just to have them discuss big conceptual issues such as climate change and poverty on which they were experts. As a result, the most interesting discussions I had were in the corridors and in the bar, where there were plenty of opportunities to interact with and learn from both Western and Russian colleagues.
2) The meetings with Russian officials are usually the highlight of the event, yet they seemed to be somewhat disengaged. The senior officials who came to speak with us included Sergei Lavrov, Sergey Kislyak, Igor Shuvalov, Vyacheslav Volodin, German Gref and, of course, Vladimir Putin himself. The dominant theme of all the meetings was that the United States had betrayed Russia’s trust in the 1990s. As Putin said when asked about any mistakes Russia had made in its relations with the United States, our greatest mistake was that we trusted you too much and your greatest mistake was that you took our trust as weakness. The video and transcript of the Putin speech are widely available, so I won’t go over the content in detail. Putin’s attitude was perhaps more interesting than the content of his speech and answers to questions. He seemed disinterested and disengaged. The answers he gave were rote. Some attendees who had been present at Valdai last year indicated that some of the answers were virtually verbatim repeats of things he had said the year before. Given that Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov had promised a “major announcement” from Putin at Valdai, the audience members were left wondering if they had missed something.
Putin clearly wanted to really hammer home the double standards argument that he has been making vis-à-vis the West (and particularly the United States) for years now. He spent an inordinate amount of time on a minute relitigation of the ICJ court case affirming Kosovo’s declaration of independence, pulling out a folder with printouts of the decision and of the reactions to it of various Western governments, which he spent a good 10 minutes reading out loud. He went on a little tirade about Ukrainian nationalism, though he seemed to conflate Petliura and Bandera in the process.
The most interesting thing about his speech was perhaps the conclusion. In response to moderator Fyodor Lukyanov’s tongue in cheek closing comment about how Valdai would miss Putin if he stopped attending because he was no longer president, he asked “will you not invite me if I’m not president?” and followed up with a joke about an oligarch who discovers that he has lost all his money and tells his wife that they will have to sell the fancy cars and houses and move back to the old apartment in Moscow. When the oligarch asks her if she will still love him, she says “yes and I will miss you very much.” The implication was that Putin very much recognizes that his status derives from his position and that leaving the position is fraught with the threat of great personal losses for him. The joke was perhaps the only time when Putin allowed a glimpse of his actual views on the world or his role in it, going beyond the by now stale script of how Russia didn’t want to be opposed to the West but had been forced into the position after being repeatedly betrayed by the United States.
The other officials all spoke off the record, but the impression they gave was not a particularly positive one. Lavrov was smart and cynical as usual. Shuvalov seemed to have dropped the “I am a good pro-Western liberal” act and was just acting like a post-Soviet bureaucrat defending his government’s policies. Volodin was, if anything, worse. As my colleague Rawi Abdelal put it, if Shuvalov looked like he had come from 1994, Volodin seemed to have arrived directly from 1974. He lost his cool on a couple of occasions, including in responding to a question about Navalny, and his scowl was really a sight to behold (see below). Gref seemed to have taken over the role of good Western liberal from Shuvalov, giving a slick presentation about various disruptive 21st century technologies and their potential impacts on Russia in general and on Sberbank in particular. The audience members’ level of interest in the presentation was inversely proportional to their familiarity with the technologies being discussed. Gref came off as a neophyte who had just discovered these new scientific developments that he mostly but not completely understood but thought were really really important and couldn’t wait to share them with everyone.
3) Finally, it’s worth briefly addressing the optics of the event. The parts of the event that involved Russian officials were clearly highly choreographed. The first few questions to Putin gave all signs of being pre-arranged softballs asked by known members of the “Russia understanders” camp. It was quite noticeable that the moderator of the Putin Q&A avoided calling on Americans until the very end, when he did call on Toby Gati. The Lavrov and Putin meetings were slightly odd in another way, as rather than taking the stage alone to address the audience and answer their questions, they were instead on panels with other speakers (colloquially called “side dishes”), who gave short presentations and then sat more or less uncomfortably as the audience addressed their questions to the Russian officials while ignoring them. The Putin panel included Hamid Karzai and Jack Ma (Alibaba CEO), as well as a representative of the Nobel Research Institute. I imagine these are not people who are used to being ignored for long periods of time. Also, there was a gala awards dinner the first evening, emceed by Sofiko Shevardnadze. It all seemed a bit too forced and too loud, like amateurs trying to put on the Oscars and ending up with something more like a small town’s annual good citizen award ceremony. It would probably be best to drop this event, or at least tone it down, as I overheard a lot of participants making uncomplimentary remarks about it afterwards.
There’s always a lively debate in the United States about whether one should attend Valdai. This was the first year I was invited, but I have always thought that for those of us who study Russian politics, it is our job to take any and all opportunities to gain a better understanding of the country and of its leadership. Activists may take a different position, eschewing any signs of “collaboration” in what is clearly a staged and choreographed event. While I wish there were more panels focusing more directly on Russian politics and foreign policy, seeing Putin, Lavrov, et al in action was worthwhile in and of itself. I’ll certainly go back if invited again, since it would be useful to compare the messaging pre- and post-2018 elections.