Five big takeaways from the World Russia Forum

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Five big takeaways from the World Russia Forum
Published 25-06-2014, 04:54

Dominic Basulto

Dominic Basulto is the U.S. editor of Russia Direct. He has extensive experience in digital media including a regular blog with The Washington Post. In addition to publishing the first-ever iPad travel guide to Sochi, Dominic has lived in the House of Writers in Moscow, taught finance at Moscow's first MBA program, published a weekly column for a Russian newspaper and completed a certificate program in Russian language from Moscow State University. He has an undergraduate degree in Politics and Russian Studies from Princeton and an MBA in emerging markets from Yale

Former Russian Ambassador Vladimir Lukin was one of the participants of the World Russia Forum in Washington. Photo: Photoxpress.

At the 34th annual meeting of the World Russia Forum in Washington, participants discussed a constructive agenda for U.S.-Russian relations that includes ideas for expanding links in fields ranging from economics and business to art, culture and technology.

If there’s one theme that emerged at this year’s World Russia Forum in Washington, it’s that Russia and the United States are more interconnected than you might think. While trade and economic relations between the two nations are still at a relatively undeveloped level, it’s clear that there are a growing number of areas where the two nations might cooperate – everything from joining forces in the war against terrorism to developing the Arctic together, creating new educational exchanges, or partnering on new technological innovation.

And the more the two countries combine and collaborate, the less the chances of an event like Ukraine spiraling into international crisis and launching daily discussions of a new Cold War.

To underscore the bilateral nature of the event – which the Washington Times called a "major Washington conference on bilateral relations”– the event featured no less than three ambassadors (current Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and former Russian Ambassador Vladimir Lukin, former Ambassador Jack Matlock from the U.S.), the appearance of major Russia scholars (Stephen Cohen, Robert Legvold), and even an old school "tele-most” between the United States and Russia organized by Interfax in Moscow.

The "tele-most" event led to a few lighthearted comments about the impact of Western sanctions since one of the speakers – Sergey Mironov of the Russian Duma–happens to be one of the 20 individuals on the U.S. sanctions list.

We are not in a Cold War. Right?

In the keynote that led off the event, Ambassador Kislyak outlined the ways that Russia and the U.S. need to collaborate. He also discounted any notion that the U.S. and Russia were locked in any form of a "new Cold War,” stating that there was "not a single ideological issue” that separates the two sides. And former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock – who experienced a real Cold War first-hand–called it a "travesty” that we were even trying to call this period a "Cold War.” What is needed, he said, was more types of cultural exchanges between the two countries.

It’s no wonder a big part of the first day of the event was attempting to define what type of period we are in right now, with some of the options being "Cold War II,” an "inter-Cold War period,” and a "new Cold War.” Even the Russian experts disagreed amongst themselves. Cohen argued that we’re not in a Cold War, while Legvold pointed to his latest piece ("Managing a New Cold War") in Foreign Affairs, in which he describes a new Cold War without any ideological basis.

The US fundamentally does not get Russia

What’s clear at many levels is that many in the United States do not understand either the intensity of Russian involvement in Ukraine, or the way that Russia views its stake in the region.Outside of the Beltway, said Ambassador Matlock, people in America don’t even know that we’re in a Cold War.

Time and time again, speakers mentioned the need to recalibrate expectations. The only problem is, the Obama Administration shows little or no willingness to engage in dialogue, while mainstream media continues to marginalize any Western experts who attempt to explain the Kremlin’s position. And, to top it all off, the U.S. still doesn’t have an Ambassador to Russia yet. That makes it tough to work things out in private.

A number of theories were advanced as to the big disconnect between American foreign policy and Russian foreign policy, with the most likely being that too many top Russia scholars have been marginalized by the mainstream media.

Cohen, hitting back at critics who have variously labeled him a "dupe” and a "Putin apologist,” offered up an assessment of the current landscape from a number of different perspectives. He basically called the World Russia Forum a call-to-arms for Russia policy "heretics” who were tired of being excluded from airing their opinions in the mainstream media.

Sanctions won’t work, even if they hurt Putin’s inner circle

The emerging consensus – offered up both by Russian and American participants – was that it was better off including Russia going forward rather than attempting to isolate it. Ambassador Kislyak, quoted in the Wall Street Journalmade it clear that sanctions were not the way forward.

Former Russian PM Sergey Stepashin, in the tele-most, even suggested that sanctions were "medieval” in nature, a relic of past history. Mironov, himself stuck on the U.S. sanctions list, argued that no sanctions would work, ever, against Russia.

One of the more entertaining discussions of sanctions came from Leonid Gozman, the president of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) opposition movement in Russia. Calling himself one of the 1 percent of people who doesn’t agree with Russia’s actions in Crimea, he outlined why the U.S. strategy of surgical sanctions were almost certain to hurt Vladimir Putin’s inner circle but could not hurt Putin himself.

Opportunities for collaboration exist in areas ranging from the Arctic to education and innovation

So if sanctions are not the way forward, then what?The key will be forming more types of collaborations and linkages between the U.S. and Russia, in spheres ranging from education and culture to science and technology.

The more these types of collaborations are formed, the more there will be room to work around difficult down times in relationship. Panelists at the event included those building educational linkages between Russian universities and top American universities, as well as Rita Guenther, a program officer from the National Academy of Sciences, who described efforts to keep the dialogue open between U.S. and Russian scientists.

For better or worse, Russia and U.S. will be at loggerheads in other regions of world – Asia, Central Asia and Europe–so the two sides had better get used to working together. In fact, in one of the more audacious conceptsfloated at event (first humorously, then rather seriously), was the notion of a tunnel linking Chukotka in Russia and Alaska. To make the concept all the more real, Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell outlined five key areas where his state was looking to partner with Russia, including the Arctic.

Money talks, ideology walks

One of the more entertaining talks was given by Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who talked about ways that he had to get around the order from Washington that business dealings with the Russians were to be ignored.

Last month, he went ahead with plans to host an innovation conference with Russian start-ups and venture capital investors that ended up attracting 300 people. He named a number of Minnesota-based companies – like Cargill and 3M – that are interested in partnering with Russian business, and even went so far as to give a shout-out to all the ways that his state is culturally (and linguistically) prepared to reach out to colleagues in Russia.

He wasn’t the only one pitching the idea for business collaboration. From the Russian side, one comment was that "money doesn’t smell.” In other words, who cares what’s happening in the realm of politics, as long as there is money to be made?

Panelists talked up the need for infrastructure development in Russia and the innovation potential of Russian start-ups and scientific establishments.

And, in fact, one big theme that emerged – especially in the final session of the program – was that Western oil & gas giants had too much money at stake to let their Russian partners walk away. Ralph Winnie, Jr. of the Eurasia Center described the potential to create a Russian "shale gas revolution” that would dwarf the size of the American shale gas revolution, while others talked up the prospects for Arctic oil and gas exploration.

What will be interesting is how these opportunities for collaboration – both business and political – are developed over next few months. There are already plans afoot to host another World Russia Forum in Moscow in early September, as well as chatter about restoring the East-West Accord meetings from the old Cold War days.

The best hope is that this talk gets pushed to a wider audience, beyond just the marginalized Russia experts in the U.S. –perhaps even to Obama’s inner circle, who will find ways to meet one-on-one with their Russian colleagues before events in Eastern Ukraine spiral out of control.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct.

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