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Five things I learned about Russia last week

I was in Sochi all last week with a healthy fraction of the Russian foreign policy elite. Here's what I learned.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a Valdai Discussion Club meeting of political scientists in Sochi on Oct. 27. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via AFP/Getty Images)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts hasn’t completely recovered from the jet-lag that comes with leaving Sochi at 2:30 in the bleeping a.m. to get back to the United States. But enough brain function has returned to make some observations about what I learned from my days in Sochi at the Valdai Discussion Club:

1) Russian-American relations are going to be bad for a good long spell. Regardless of the nationality or ideological predisposition of the participant, everyone attending Valdai thought this to be true. Bloomberg’s Marc Champion offers up a concise summary of the mood at the conference.

The disturbing part of this is how easy it is for both side to engage in an Airing of Grievances. By now Russian officials have a hardened line of discourse about How We Got Here that starts with the end of the Cold War, goes on to Kosovo, proceeds to Iraq and the dissolution of the ABM Treaty, continues through the 2008 Bucharest Summit about NATO enlargement, and then ends with some shots at U.S. policy in Libya and Syria. From Vladimir Putin on down, the brief against America is clear, concise and pretty damn compelling to Russians.

American interlocutors have their own doppelgänger version of this narrative, of course. It usually starts with Putin’s crackdown on internal opposition, goes on to Georgia, focuses a lot on Ukraine and Syria, notes Russian support for some unsavory Western politicians, mentions Moscow’s pressure on the Baltic states, perambulates around cyber, and closes with rumored interference in the U.S. election. Bear in mind that anyone attending Valdai is by definition pretty far from being an anti-Russian hardliner, and yet this is an easy brief to put forward.

At best, experts on both sides see a short-term future in which there is solid crisis management to handle the sensitive sports of the bilateral relationship. No one was terribly optimistic.

2) Russia’s grand strategy is for Russia to be treated like a great power. That’s it. A lot of high-ranking Russian officials came to chat, and the questions from the participants were quite good. But one exchange stood out. A non-American noted that Russia’s pre-2008 rhetoric toward the U.S. was, essentially, “We disapprove of your revisionist actions in the world but will not take similar actions because we believe in Westphalian sovereignty.” The post-2008 rhetoric has been, essentially, “We get to do what you’ve done in the past.” This non-American then asked a Russian official how, exactly, this recent turn made Russia any better than the United States?

The official harrumphed a lot and gave no real answer.

Russians are clearly enjoying the perception that they are back in the Great Game of international relations. That said, if Russian officials have a grand strategy about what the future holds, they are not articulating it well. For all the superficial claims about the pivot to China, Russian officials seemed awfully obsessed with their relations with the West. There was a lot of talk about the return to multipolarity. However, when asked how this multipolarity would affect, say, Eurasian integration, there was a lot of hand-waving.

The effect of this is to have Russian officials repeatedly stress issue areas where Russia is truly a great power. This meant lots of talk about Syria, Russia’s neighbors and . . . nuclear weapons. Lots of conversations about nuclear weapons. Indeed, that last point seems to have Russian commentators sounding even more hysterical than American commentators.

3) Russia’s economy is not in great shape. Nothing was said at Valdai that contradicted Arkady Ostrovsky’s acute diagnosis of Russia’s political economy in the Economist from last week. Indeed, some officials confirmed the economic policy problems that were discussed in that survey. Sanctions and low energy prices have hurt the Russian economy. The surge in state ownership and repeated changes to the tax code have deterred private-sector investment. Russia’s demographics are a disaster. None of this was disputed.

4) Vladimir Putin is, like, super-passive-aggressive. Props to the Russian leader — he took questions from the participants for more than two hours, and seemed perfectly at ease doing so. But when the conversation turned to sensitive flash points, he got very snarky. Consider this answer about possible Russian interference in the U.S. election:

I think that this idea, inserted into the public consciousness in the middle of the U.S. presidential campaign, pursues the sole aim of supporting those defending the interests of Ms. Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate, in her fight against the Republican Party candidate, in this case, Donald Trump.
How is this done? First, they create an enemy in the form of Russia, and then they say that Trump is our preferred candidate. This is complete nonsense and totally absurd. It’s only a tactic in the domestic political struggle, a way of manipulating public opinion before the elections take place. As I have said many times before, we do not know exactly what to expect from either of the candidates once they win.
We do not know what Mr. Trump would do if he wins, and we do not know what Ms Clinton would do, what would go ahead or not go ahead. Overall then, it does not really matter to us who wins. Of course, we can only welcome public words about a willingness to normalize relations between our two countries. In this sense, yes, we welcome such statements, no matter who makes them. That is all I can say, really.

Those are his words, but the transcript does not do justice to Putin’s tone. Rhetorically, Putin kept nominally declaring that he didn’t care who won the U.S. election, all the while venting his spleen about Hillary Clinton. And it’s interesting that Putin’s line about this so perfectly parallels Donald Trump’s line.

5) The last great liberals of the world are in East Asia. Russian officials wanted to talk about the rise of populism in the West, the new Cold War, and a burgeoning Eurasian community. Other, more radical participants wanted to talk about the crises in globalization and global capitalism.

There were a lot of participants from the Pacific Rim, however, and they were nearly unanimous in thinking that all this talk was very problematic. East Asian participants were unanimous in thinking that Brexit was a bad idea. Whenever a participant railed against the inequalities posed by globalization, they would shake their heads sadly and dismiss the comments. Whenever someone raised Sino-American disagreements, Chinese interlocutors would downplay any surge in tensions. The Chinese in attendance were happy to talk Eurasian integration, but to them the key driver for that will be One Belt, One Road and not the Eurasian Economic Union or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.