Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual economic forum kicked off Wednesday with a significantly reduced guest list as Russia struggles with sanctions for starting the war in Ukraine and plenty of excuses from Putin’s advisers as to why the forum is so underperforming this year.
While in previous years executives from around the world from both the public and private sectors flocked to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), a kind of “Russian Davos”, to meet with Russia’s financial elite, this year was the attendee List is sparse.
Some of the notable participants range from the Taliban to Putin’s right-hand man in Belarus, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, whose presence comes as no surprise. The president of Kazakhstan — which, like Belarus, is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), — was scheduled to address the conference’s plenary session.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will also hold a video conference with the confab.
“This is my fifth year working at the forum and the atmosphere has never been so tense,” a Konfab staffer told the Moscow Times.
The SPIEF was established in 1997 to stimulate foreign investment. And the conference, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is promoting itself this year as “one of the largest and most important business events in the world” and “a leading international event.”
But the undercurrent at the conference is that something is wrong. Only “friendly” countries will send delegations this year amid the war, Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, said, according to Vedomosti. According to Ushakov, the largest delegation and the “guest” delegation of honor come from Egypt.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to defend the downgraded conference.
“Foreign investors are not only from the United States and the European Union,” Peskov said, according to Reuters.
“It’s difficult to get to St. Petersburg for objective reasons,” Ushakov admitted, in a likely reference to the fact that many Western nations are severely restricting airspace for Russian planes because of the war Putin is waging in Ukraine to have.
Several business leaders are concerned that attending the conference could flag them as targets of further western sanctions, Bloomberg reported.
Even the listings of the conference program are almost pathetic. The forum’s program makes little reference to the war in Ukraine and notes on the one hand “new conditions” and on the other hand a “new environment” for Russia’s financial sector. The show laments “anti-Russia sanctions” and raises many desperate questions, such as “How will the Russian financial system develop under new conditions?” and “How can we stimulate investments in the Russian economy?”
According to the Biden administration, Putin could simply end the war.
But the program goes on. The “resilience and flexibility of Russia’s financial system” has been “seriously tested” by sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and Western nations for starting the war in Ukraine, the program said — without which to mention war.
The program even admits how patently vulnerable Russia’s cybersecurity sector is as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
“The rapid withdrawal of companies and ecosystems from Russia has shown how vulnerable our cyber resilience is,” the program reads, lamenting a statement by United States National Security Agency director-general Paul Nakasone, who also leads the offensive cyber unit Pentagon Cyber Leads Command which confirmed the Biden administration has been conducting offensive operations in support of Ukraine.
“Also alarming are the allegations by the American Cyber Command regarding their involvement in cyber attacks inside Ukraine,” the program said.
Russia’s degraded economic forum will end with remarks from Putin himself. He plans to deliver a speech focused on trying to encourage “external investment and trade ties,” Ushakov said.