On November 10th, Dr. Andrew Kuchins discussed his impressions of the 2016 meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club and presented the key takeaways from the meeting, which took place in Sochi from October 24 to October 27, 2016. Dr. Kuchins began by outlining the structure and purpose of the Valdai Discussion Club, describing its increasing inclusiveness, size and extravagance over the last decade. He went on to describe his impressions of President Vladimir Putin’s overall mien at Valdai over the past few years, ranging from “white-hot” anger in 2014 to limited hopefulness in 2015 and finally to a sense of bitter resignation in 2016. Dr. Kuchins then turned to Putin’s main talking points and comments at the most recent meeting. He reported that Putin expressed disappointment with the failure of the Syrian ceasefire agreement and frustration with the progress of the Minsk agreement and the stalled status of the situation in Ukraine. Putin downplayed Russia’s suspension of the treaty on weapons-grade plutonium, noting that it was not a withdrawal from the treaty. Dr. Kuchins reported that Putin questioned the past and future of INF Treaty in the context of Russian vulnerability to nuclear attacks as opposed to the relative lack of immediate nuclear threats to the United States.
Next, Dr. Kuchins outlined the positions of Igor Shuvalov and Alexei Kudrin on Russia’s economy, as presented at Valdai. In regard to sanctions, Kuchins reported that Shuvalov expressed confidence that Russia could sustain itself for “a very long time.” Kudrin pointed out that sanctions have cost Russia 1% of its GDP per year, which is not enough to warrant a change of policy on the part of the Kremlin. In terms of upcoming reforms, Shuvalov assured the attendees that Russian society was entirely ready, while Kudrin was more cautious about the presentation of sensitive issues such as pension reform to the public. In his presentation, Kudrin spoke to the need for a positive foreign policy and a strong European Union – within limits – for successful economic development. When questioned, Kudrin admitted the greater willingness of the Russian government to accept foreign input on economic reform rather than on foreign and security policy, and spoke to the possible benefits of a more active civil society, more competition in politics, and a more cautiously and carefully-paced approach to the allocation of budgetary resources to military expenditures.
Lastly, Dr. Kuchins discussed the final takeaways from President Putin’s remarks at Valdai. Firstly, Mr. Putin insisted on Russia’s inability to significantly affect U.S. elections and the necessity of banning intervention in national elections, while not explicitly denying Russia-backed intervention in the cyber sphere. The Russian President then discussed what he saw as a worldwide trend of rebellion against elites and the establishment, creating surprises for the authorities and the media. These surprises, he said, could no longer be chalked up to chance or foreign intervention. Overall, Mr. Putin characterized himself as an outsider, siding with the people in their grievances with the elite.