Even at U.N. level, during sessions addressing Ukrainian issues, abstentions have been depicted in the West as signs of lowering supports for the Kremlin. It might simply mean that those states abstain because they do resent any armed interventions in a foreign territory, fearing it might happen to them, and not from Russia. They wanted to deliver a message of reprobation, but they take seriously the concept of neutrality. It means that they do not want to join any coalition, nor to adopt sanctions hurting their national development and regional cooperation.
By definition, the Davos Forum, as the G7/G8 and G20, are dealing with global finances and economy. But lately, the war in Ukraine and the sanctions have overtaken all the agendas, blurring the lines between the tasks of different international organisations, including EU and NATO. Every session has been attended by Ukrainian delegations, even if they are not members; it included an address by president Zelensky, asking for more aide, more arms, and more sanctions against Russia. Even debates about climate changes and food security have been sidelined; the latter, who had been introduced by president Obama at the G20 Pittsburg summit in 2009, is now delt through the prism of Russia blockading Ukrainian seaports. All that is happening despite the quasi-permanent crisis that followed the financial disasters of 2008 and 2018. In many aspects, the wars in Ukraine can be seen as a catalyzer more than a starter.
Concerning Davos 2023, the first post Covid Forum, the sensation was the first absence of the Russians in 25 years. It was not a première: in January 2015, the gathering was already overshadowed by Russia-Ukraine conflict. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was there to attract investors to Ukraine, away of Russia, using his knowledge of the field as a businessman and a rich oligarch. President Putin did not attend and the members of the Russian official delegation were not there to deliver political statements about the sanctions decreed by the West in reaction to the transfer of Crimea and part of the Donbass to the Russian Federation. They were sent there to answer to foreign investors, concerned that Russia was facing the threat of a “junk” rating before the end of January. Davos 2015 was also the moment when Russians understood that sanctions were there to stay, and decided to adopt contingency measures in case of further sanctions.
The growing gap
For Russian analysts, not only Putin’s adversaries, 2015 was a turn into realism: Russia will have to cope alone with the economic crisis of the time; the West was only interested in solving the crisis according to its interests. But, in 2023, the Russians were completely absent, and many “stars” of previous meetings were black listed and/or under sanctions. The contrast was especially cruel as the 2023 Forum was taking place after a two-years gap due to Covid, an epidemy from which the global world has still to recover. In the meantime, the sanctions had hit Russia, despite preparations to outfox them undergone since 2014. But companies and banking institutions were surprised by the West’s resolution. Always good in communication, the Ukrainians took over the Russia House which was for 25 years a rallying point for champagne and caviar gourmets.
It is almost difficult to remember it, but the arrival of the Russians to Davos was the symbol of their inclusion into the liberal world and their thirst for liberal reforms. It was also the time when the West was convinced that free market and free democracy were automatically going hand in hand. More importantly, Westerners wanted to believe that they would more easily accede to Russia’s natural resources and financial services through “cooperation”. Today, most of the oligarchs who were in high demand for interviews and round-tables are blacklisted. Officials and representatives of state companies are persona non grata. The attendants in Davos were not trying to do business with Russia – but to review their global strategies without Russia.
More than Davos
The same utopia has affected the G8 and G20. There too, the participation of Russia to those organisations was high on symbols. The G7 was renamed G8 in 1998, a year after president Boris Yeltsin appeared as a guest observer. Full participation of Russia was saluted in Moscow as the sign it was now “part of the club” of wealthy nations. In the West, it was an encouragement to Yeltsin’s reformist agenda. The bromance went on, until March 2014, when the June summit due to be held in Sochi was cancelled and Russia’s participation suspended because of its Ukrainian adventure. But, up to the invasion of last year, some of the members were keen to state that the suspension was not definitive and can be reversed. Then, in 2017, Russia announced it was permanently leaving the G8, now again a G7.
Since 2014, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov has been downplaying the exclusion, arguing that major international decisions were taken by the G20. This opinion, which has been expressed at the Pittsburgh summit of 2009, ten years after its creation in the wake of the global financial crisis. But, again, perceptions diverged. For the West, the G20 was a framework through which to retain its influence in a changing world. For the emergent countries, membership was a sign of their growing political influence. For Russia, it was a field in which to test the “old order”.
Here too, the war in Ukraine has been a key element, and will stay until a semi-stable political solution is agreed on. Even then, Ukraine will continue to call for Russia paying the price of its war. In the meantime, G7 and G20 continue to exist, without Russia. But its absence is reducing the scope of common action among the members, and the inclusion of military affairs during meetings and summits is a factor of division. The absence of President Putin at the last G20 presidential summit was certainly a set-back in term of image. But the Western pressures on Indonesia, the host country, were poorly received and many delegations, including the Chinese, were reduced accordingly.