Russia Is Far From Isolated

Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

A recent economic summit shows the world still wants in.

In 2014, when the White House started pressuring the chief executives of some of America’s largest companies to skip the event, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) gained an additional symbolic meaning. After the twentieth SPIEF took place earlier this month, it is arguable whether this policy worked at all, since American companies were well represented. However, there is no doubt that firms from other parts of the globe will seize the opportunity missed by American businesses loyally following their country’s policy to avoid Russia. In a broader political context, while Washington pretends to have isolated Russia, Europeans are trying to engage with Moscow.

Hardly anybody thought that if American companies skipped the St. Petersburg Forum it would be the last straw, breaking the back of Russia’s opposition to Western demands regarding Crimea and Ukraine. And the facts stand: Crimea is a part of Russia, the Russian economy has been sustaining external blows better than many experts in the West expected and President Putin, firmly at the helm, continues to receive many foreign guests, including even some Americans, in his home town.

The question arises—what is next for American policy? One cannot say that Washington has completely stopped all engagement with Russia; the Syrian crisis is a glaring example of why it is impossible. Perhaps, then, more engagement would be helpful.

Politically, the St. Petersburg Forum was rich in high-level talks; Ban Ki-moon, Jean-Claude Juncker, Matteo Renzi, and Nicolas Sarkozy all had their reasons to come to St. Petersburg. So did several dozen leaders of American and European companies, who had the chance to hear offers directly from Putin on starting to work in Russia or expanding their already existing business. 

It was no surprise that Putin, members of the Russian government, mayors and governors were eager to describe the perspective of Russia’s economy, which has withstood the turmoil of low oil prices and Western sanctions better than many expected. (One should give officials, including the president, credit for acknowledging the many problems.) Critics will easily find a lot to dispute in these promises. However, it is more interesting to consider what exactly Putin said during the SPIEF, an event aimed especially at foreign audiences.

Fareed Zakaria, moderating the panel discussion with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, asked Putin several questions on the most important issues in international politics. Several of Putin’s meetings with foreign business leaders took place mostly behind closed doors, but there was a Q&A session for heads of international news agencies where one could easily gain understanding of the features of current Russian foreign policy. What exactly are they?

First, despite the serious efforts to make the Eurasian Economic Union an effective organization of economic integration and to develop cooperation with Eastern partners (Jack Ma came to St. Petersburg for the second year in a row), the development of relations with the West remains a necessity, if not a priority, for Russia. It entails two aspects of cooperation, security and economic.

In St. Petersburg Putin spoke, rather extensively for a business forum, on security. On the one hand, he acknowledged the United States as “a great power, today perhaps the only superpower.” This statement is an international event in and of itself. It would be difficult to imagine Xi Jinping expressing anything similar, for instance, on Chinese soil. On the other hand, the Russian president reminded everybody once again of the logic behind Russia’s more assertive foreign policy in recent years. He repeated how Russia expected full-scale cooperation (“full-scale prosperity, full-scale trust,” as Putin put it) after the end of the Cold War, but experienced NATO expansion, the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Western support for the Al Qaeda–linked insurgency in the North Caucasus and destabilizing Western interventions in different regions. One can argue that these are only excuses for Putin, yet all the events he mentioned did indeed take place. He emphasized that he did not mention these events to blame the West, but rather to explain Russia’s moves to those in the West looking to understand them.