This year’s session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club was organized in hybrid fashion, with most participants attending in person but some (myself included) choosing to participate remotely. Indeed, the pictures from the conference hotel in Krasnaya Polyana, high in the mountains above Sochi, provided a sharp contrast with what was happening in the rest of Russia: While the participants sat unmasked next to each other in a crowded auditorium, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country was rising dramatically—so much so that President Vladimir Putin ordered Russians to take a week of paid leave and stay home in the hope that the pandemic would subside.
The Valdai Discussion Club began in 2004 as a project to bring foreign Russia experts to Russia to meet with Russian counterparts and also meet with senior officials, including Putin (and Dimitry Medvedev when he was president). It has evolved from a small group of international Russia experts discussing Russian affairs, into a large gathering in which Russia features as one of many global actors and whose format now resembles Davos more than the earlier, more intimate meetings. In the early years, Russian participants included politicians and journalists from the democratic opposition, but they are no longer invited, with the exception of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Novaya Gazeta editor Dimitry Muratov, who attended this year’s session.
In the early years, Valdai also offered a unique opportunity for foreign participants to travel and experience parts of Russia that were unknown to many of them. Valdai sessions were held in Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Khanty-Mansiysk, Chechnya, Yakutia, Tver, Kaluga and on a boat between Kizhi and Valaam. Since 2014, however, the meetings have been held in Krasnaya Polyana in the hotel built for a G-8 summit that was cancelled when Russia was expelled from the organization following the annexation of Crimea. Since 2014, the conference themes have shifted from Russia to global order and disorder.
The foreign participants have also changed. Since 2014 there have been fewer experts on Russia and more people whose expertise includes international economics and politics. What began as a gathering of U.S. and European participants has expanded to include Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern attendees. The message now is that Russia is an essential global player and can offer solutions to global problems, including climate change. And yet, as this year’s meeting showed, Russia’s unique civilization is offered as an antidote to the fractious mores of a declining West. The conference theme was “Global Shake-Up in the 21st Century: The Individual, Values and the State.”
Putin has addressed the Valdai Club in various formats over the years, ranging from the early small dinners with foreign participants, which could stretch on for hours, to sitting on the stage with other world leaders including Hamid Karzai, Rodrigo Duterte and King Abdullah II of Jordan. This year he sat on the stage with Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs. He spent more than 3 1/2 hours giving a speech and answering questions from the audience (both in-person and virtual). His speech was wide-ranging, touching on topics both domestic and international, but he began with a theme that he has raised in previous Valdai meetings—excoriating the West for what might be called its culture of wokeness, likening the enforcers of this culture to the Bolsheviks and praising Russia for its “healthy conservatism.” He attacked feminism, the transgender community, affirmative action, “cancel culture” and “reverse racism,” quoting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to support his arguments. He claimed that the Western obsession with gender and race is “even worse than the agitprop department of the Central Committee” of the Soviet Communist Party. He said that his intellectual mentors were Nikolai Berdyayev and Ivan Ilyin—conservative philosophers who were expelled from their homeland after the Bolsheviks took over. One might ask who the intended audience was for this attack on Western culture and praise of “heathy conservatism.” Presumably it was largely domestic, but it may also have appealed to some of the foreign participants who view Russia as a bastion of traditional values amid a sea of Western immorality.
Muratov, the Nobel-winning newspaper editor, was undoubtedly the most notable member of the audience this year. He questioned Putin about Russia’s expansive foreign-agents law, which by now has branded any publication critical of the Kremlin as a foreign agent. He asked Putin to clarify the criteria by which individuals and organizations are judged. Putin congratulated Muratov on winning the Nobel Peace Prize, claimed that the United States was the first country to introduce a foreign-agents law and that the Russian law was no worse than the American law. But he promised to look into the issue. Immediately thereafter, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan was given the floor and she complained about the way the U.S. had treated her TV network, branding it a foreign agent and summoning her for “interrogation” because she had not registered as a foreign agent. She vowed that she will not travel to the U.S. anymore because she fears she would be jailed.
Despite his criticism of U.S. culture, Putin was generally positive on the state of U.S-Russian relations, as was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also addressed the conference. Putin described the Geneva summit with President Joe Biden as productive, citing ongoing talks on strategic stability and cybersecurity issues. He said the U.S. was right to have withdrawn from Afghanistan, although he questioned the way in which it was done. In answer to my question about counterterrorism cooperation, he responded positively to future cooperation and cited instances where the U.S. had given Russia information that had enabled it to foil terrorist attacks. Lavrov told the audience that Russia’s goal was to keep Afghanistan safe and stable and to prevent extremism and drugs from finding their way to Russia.
Putin’s views on Ukraine are well-known, but he introduced a new element in answer to a question about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to Kyiv. Acknowledging that NATO membership for Ukraine may never happen, he said that the expansion of American military assistance to Ukraine nevertheless poses a threat to Russia. Likening it to what he claimed were broken promises made in 1989 about NATO infrastructure never moving to the eastern part of Germany and beyond, he claimed that NATO infrastructure was moving closer to Russia and threatening its security.
Participating virtually is, of course, different from being there in person, so following participants on social media enhanced one’s understanding of what was happening outside the auditorium. The main messages from the meeting were that Russia, with its unique history and healthy conservative civilization, can offer solutions for a world where the West is in retreat. This includes creating a better climate-friendly and socially responsible model of capitalism so that the post-West world can survive and prosper.