Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual economic forum kicked off Wednesday with a significantly diminished guest list, as Russia grapples with sanctions for launching the war in Ukraine, and loads of excuses from Putin’s advisers on why the forum is so subpar this year.
While in previous years leaders from around the globe from both the public and private sector flocked to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), a kind of “Russian Davos,” to rub shoulders with Russia’s elite financial class, this year the attendee list is sparse.
Some of the most notable attendees range from the Taliban to Putin’s right-hand man in Belarus, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, whose presence is by no means a 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 slated to speak at the plenary session of the conference.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is also set to videoconference with the confab.
“This is my fifth year working at the forum, and the atmosphere has never been this tense,” an employee of the confab told The Moscow Times.
The SPIEF was launched as a way to jumpstart foreign investment in 1997. And the conference, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, advertises itself this year as “one of the biggest and most important business events in the world” and “a leading international event.”
But the undercurrent at the conference is that something is amiss. Only “friendly” countries will be sending delegations this year amid the war, Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, said, according to Vedomosti. The largest delegation, and the “guest” delegation of honor, will be coming from Egypt, according to Ushakov.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov tried to defend the downgraded conference.
“Foreign investors are not only from the United States and European Union,” Peskov said, according to Reuters.
“It is difficult to get to St. Petersburg for objective reasons,” Ushakov admitted, in a likely reference to the fact that many western nations have heavily restricted airspace to Russian planes due to the war Putin is waging in Ukraine.
Several business leaders are concerned that attending the conference will mark them as targets for further western sanctions, Bloomberg reported.
Even the conference program listings are near abject. The forum’s program barely references the war in Ukraine, in one turn noting “new conditions” and in another a “new environment” for Russia’s financial sector. The program laments “anti-Russia sanctions” and throws out a lot of desperate questions, such as “How will the Russian financial system develop under new conditions?” And “How can we stimulate investment in the Russian economy?”
According to the Biden administration, Putin could just end the war.
But the program goes on. The “resilience and flexibility of the Russian financial system” has been “seriously tested” by sanctions the United States and western nations have slapped on Russia for launching the war in Ukraine, the program notes—without mention of the war.
The program even admits how openly vulnerable the Russian cybersecurity sector is as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
“The rapid exit of companies and ecosystems from Russia has shown how vulnerable our cyber resilience is,” the program states, bemoaning a statement from the United States’ National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, who also leads the Pentagon’s offensive cyber unit, Cyber Command, which confirmed the Biden administration has run offensive ops in support of Ukraine.
“Claims by the American cyber command regarding their participation in cyber attacks carried out from within Ukraine are also alarming,” the program notes.
Russia’s demoted economic forum will finish off with remarks from Putin himself. He plans to deliver a speech focused on trying to boost “external investment and trade relations,” Ushakov said.