By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

This year’s 17th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, due to the spread of the global pandemic, took place in Moscow under restrained conditions from October 20-22. It was entitled: “The lessons of the Pandemic and the New Agenda: How to turn the World Crisis into an Opportunity for the World.” The conference was organized in form of five sessions and a plenary debate with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. While there were only a few people gathering in the conference hall, most of the contributions, as well as debates, including experts from Russia, China, India, South Korea, Australia, Germany, USA  and others were transmitted by video live stream. The central theme underlying the debate was the global pandemic and questions such as: what effects the pandemic will have on the global economy and global trade. Will it lead to more de-globalization, and fragmentation? Will it stir up more global power competition centered on the US and China, or will it pave the way for more “platforms of multilateral cooperation”?

Different sessions included debates about how the pandemic could be combatted medically and scientifically: there was also a debate about the question of future tech wars as well as a fascinating debate about the interconnection between the global pandemic and climate change which was entitled “The global climate agenda and carbon neo-colonialism”. The debate centered on the question of “carbon cycle”, where Russia with its billions of trees and many forests could play a central world -wide in the managing through carbon sequestration f.i. to mitigate or reverse Co2 pollution.  What was key to the debates was that while there is open communication between the scientific community in the East and West, the problem is often created by people in politics in the West, which only focus attention on the “green deal” by disregarding the role which Russia with its potential for forestry as well as nuclear energy could play in the future.

Cold War 2.0?

There was a session dedicated to the question of emerging future strategic conflicts “Cold War 2.0? What the US-China Rivalry means for International Politics.  Is bipolarity possible? And what will it mean for other actors in the international arena? What will confrontation look like? What are the chances for achieving balance in relations?” The session was moderated by Timofei Bordachev- Program Director of the Valdai Discussion Club. Many experts during the debate spoke about the “decline” of the US neo liberal financing model, contrasting this with the Chinese economic model that is able “to organize production” and is part of multilateral organizations such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation organization, and that has initiated the AIB (Asia Infrastructure Bank) five years ago. According to former Indian Ambassador to Russia, P.S. Rhagvan, “the US as center of neo liberalism is declining; its public health system is out of control. What will happen after the November 3rd elections is that it will be armed to its teeth.”  All speakers strongly complained about the US “sanction policy” exemplified by the US sanctions against Iran, that not only is directed against  European  and companies, but also against all countries in Asia that favor stronger trade ties with Iran (Indonesia, India, China  for example). They complained that “sanctions are a pernicious tool and contrary to international law.”  The Russian representative from the Duma Committee on science and education, Viacheslav Nikonov, emphasized that “we faced the 34th round of sanctions” that in the long run however China plus Russia are “better equipped than the SU was.” He qualified the American system as “dysfunctional.”

In a session with leading Russian scientists, such as the director from the “Gamaleya resaech Resarch Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, Professor Alexander Gintsburg, details were given about the new Russian Corona Vaccine (“Sputnik”) program which enters the third clinical test phase. According to Kirill Dimitriev (Chief Executive Officer of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which supports the research of the Institute, there is hope that in the next 10 to 12 months 70% of the population will get vaccinated. At the same time it was stated that Russia is in close cooperation with countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Korea. Professor Gintsburg reported that the British scientific magazine “Lancet” had favorably reported about the Russian vaccine research and that despite the fact that many media tried to downplay the significance of Russian vaccine research- it is a fact that “fundamental knowledge belongs to mankind.”

Putin and the role of the state in the emerging new order

The pandemic was also the central theme and starting point in President Putin’s address. The President noted that “the struggle against the coronavirus threat has shown that only a viable state can act effectively in a crisis – contrary to the reasoning of those who claim that the role of the state in the global world is decreasing and that in the future it will be altogether replaced with some other forms of social organization” and he stressed that “we have always considered a strong state a basic condition in Russia’s development. (…) What makes a state strong is confidence the citizens have in it. Confidence is the most solid foundation for the state.”

Putin devoted his attention on the question which new world order may emerge in the aftermath of the global pandemic. As he stressed, “it is important to preserve the basic mechanisms of maintaining international security, which have proved to be effective. This is the UN, the Security Council and the permanent members’ right to veto.” He referred to his speech which he gave at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the UN General Assembly: “The preservation of the fundament of the international order established after World War II enjoys broad support in the world.”

In terms of global power relations he noted that “China is moving quickly towards superpower status. Germany is moving in the same direction, the Federal Republic of Germany has become an important player in international cooperation. At the same time the roles of Great Britain and France in international affairs has undergone significant changes. The United States, which at some point absolutely dominated the international stage, can hardly claim ‘exceptionality’ any longer… Power houses such as Brazil and South Africa et cetera have become much more influential.”

Russia’s role in the management of climate change

An important aspect of his speech was focused on the environment and climate change. Putin spoke about the need that it is even more important to “preserve our common home for future generations.”  “Scientists think that the recent outbreaks of dangerous diseases are a response to the interference of man.  That is why it is so important to develop harmonious relations between Man and Nature.” Putin stressed for example that “climate change requires more attention on our part.” He made reference to the melting of the polar ice caps which was also debated during a fascinating panel on “climate change”. Putin said, that “according to expert estimates, the speed and scale of this process will be increasing in the next few decades. This is a huge challenge to the world and Russia, since the permafrost occupies 65% of Russian national territory. Such changes can do irreparable damage to biological diversity, have an extremely adverse effect on the economy and infrastructure and pose a direct threat to people (…) it affects pipeline system, residential districts built on permafrost, and so on. If as much of the near-surface layers of permafrost, which is about three or four meters, melt by 2100, we will feel the effect very strongly. Moreover the problem could snowball into a crisis very quickly. A kind of chain reaction is possible, because permafrost melting will stimulate ‘methane’ emissions which can produce a greenhouse effect that will be 28 times (sic) larger than in the case of carbon dioxide.”

Global security policy

Putin expressed hope that his proposal made to the US, to cooperate along the line of bilateral and multilateral “cyber agreements”, as laid down in two draft proposals at the UN by Russia will be received favorably and that in terms of future arms reduction treaty, despite all the breaks from the side of the US, further progress can be made. He noted in an answer to a question posed by the director of the IMEMO Institute, that “over the past 20 years, our American partners have consistently and very easily dismantled this system: first the ABN Treaty, and then the INF and Open Skies treaties. And now, there are problems with extending the New Start Treaty. The President underlined that “the world will have no future unless limits are put on the arms race. This is all what all of us should think about, and this is what we are urging all of our partners to think about.”  He remarked that the US has pulled out of things without even trying to explain. “Our European colleagues tell us: Let them withdraw but you shouldn’t do the same… European partners would like to remain a member of the Open Skies treaty to keep it intact. The best solution would be for verification and monitoring to be implemented by all contacting parties, so that our agreements are reliably protected by these monitoring systems.” Putin stated that it was better to preserve the present treaty, “if you ask about our position, I believe it’s better not to lose what was achieved before, to move forward from the positions that have already been reached by previous generations, by the leaders of our countries.”

Russian- German relations

In terms of Germany and on the background of the recent Navalny case, which has almost ruined German -Russian relations, the Russian President emphasized that despite all what happened “we have had very good relations with Germany in the post-War years. I think this was largely due to the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, which was SU’s main ally in Europe. We have developed very good relations at the personal and political levels and in the economic sphere. I know there are still a lot of people there now who sympathize with Russia. And we appreciate that… Incidentally the Soviet Union did play a decisive role in the reunification of Germany, unlike some of the western allies of Germany.” Putin mentioned that Russia has always had “very special economic and even humanitarian ties with Germany. Even now Germany is Russia’s second largest trade partner, in gross volume. It used to be the first, by the way, but it is second to China now, as our trade with China is twice the volume, than it is with Germany. Nevertheless there are more than 2000 companies with German capital in our market. We have a fairly large volume of German investment and German businesses are interested in working with Russia. We are happy about this, because we know these are sincere people interested in expanding ties with our country.  I regularly meet with representatives of German business (…) Mutual interest is at the heart of this relationship, not an ambition to play a special role. And this mutual interest will not go away, regardless of the current political situation, and we will maintain such relations, no matter what anyone does.”

The future of Russia – China relations

Major attention was given by the Russian President also to Russian- Chinese relations.  Putin qualified relations with China as being on an “unprecedented level. Both treat each other with deep trust (…) we have established durable, stable, and most importantly effective ties across the board. We are working together in aviation and nuclear power engineering…. and further developing trade ties.” Last year’s trade was 111 billion (…) We are developing infrastructure, building bridges that unite us in the literal meaning of the word. (…) China is a big shareholder in a number of large Russian projects on gas production and later on liquefaction (LNG).”  In terms of military and defense industry cooperation, Putin emphasized that relations were maintained on a significant scale i.e. “sharing of technologies.”  In respect to military cooperation the Russian President underlined that both China and Russia (…) hold joint military exercises – at sea and on land, in both China and the Russian Federation – and we share best practices in the build- up of the armed forces. We have achieved a high level of cooperation in defense industry. I am not only talking about the exchange or the purchase and sale of military products, but the sharing of technologies.(…) Undoubtedly cooperation between Russia and China is boosting the defense potential of the Chinse People’s Army, which is in the interests of Russia as well as China.” He also pointed to the American threat to deploy medium and short- range missiles in the Asia Pacific Region which raises alarm.

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