On the day pro-Russian forces’ artillery fire encircled over 5,000 Ukrainian soldiers in the town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, a debate was being carried out over the war’s causes and consequences far from the fighting in the Altai Mountains on Russia’s eastern edge.
The Altai forum was founded 13 years ago by Russian opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a liberal German policy institute. This year, while the battle raged in Debaltseve, the debates were especially tense.
International economists, political analysts, diplomats and Russian politicians debated whom to blame for the war in Ukraine and what Russia should be doing to survive the economic crises brought on by the conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin was a frequent subject. Hitler came up more than once as panelists sparred over whether Putin could rightly be compared to the Nazi leader.
“I am against comparing Putin to Hitler, as that means the end of the dialogue. The sides referring to each other as ‘fascists’ also means the end of the dialogue,” said Vice President of the European Parliament Alexander Lambsdorff. American politicians like Senator John McCain and Russian dissidents including Gary Kasparov have invoked the Hitler comparison in the past. Lambsdorff’s admonition, however, was not the last time Hitler came up at the conference.
A blue-and yellow-bracelet the colors of Ukraine’s flag adorned the wrist of Viacheslav Rabinovich, the head of Moscow-based hedge fund Diamond Age Capital Advisors foundation. Rabinovich reminded participants that inside Russia debates like the one they were having could cost people their career. “Professor Andrei Zubov used to teach at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, his students loved him,” Rabinovich said. “He was fired for comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with Nazi Germany’s Anschluss with Austria.”
Zubov was fired from his university post after an opinion piece he published in the Vedomosti newspaper in the aftermath of the Russian Federation Council’s vote permitting Putin to send troops to Ukraine. “We should not do what the Germans did in their time on the promises of Goebbels and Hitler,” Zubov wrote.
The dignitaries and power brokers at Altai, split over their attitudes toward Putin, continued to disagree when it came to assigning blame for the war in Ukraine. According to Lambsdorff of the European parliament, Russia’s backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine is a ploy to keep Kiev out of the EU and prevent it from joining Russia’s military rival, NATO. Rabinovich blamed the “FSB corporation that took over the power in Russia” for the war, referring to the Russian security service where Putin began his career.
The real enemy in Ukraine is America, offered pro-Kremlin political analyst Timofei Bordachev. America’s attempts at “pulling” Ukraine and Georgia into NATO created the conditions for war, Bordachev argued. “Russia reacted the way it was supposed to react in today’s international context. As for the first time in the last 25 years we have full clarity in U.S. politics: our American partners want to win,” Bordachev said.
In the face of American belligerence Bordachev suggested abandoning the U.S. and Europe in favor of an eastward turn in Russia’s political and business relations.
Bordachev’s views elicited a sharply divided reaction at the forum. “His expertise has no value,” Rabinovich told The Daily Beast during a coffee break. Inviting Bordachev was “the same as inviting Putin,” Rabinovich said. Others pointed out that banning pro-Putin voices inside the forum would ignore the Russian leader’s popular support. “It is time for Russians to wake up and open their eyes,” opposition leader Vladimir Milov told The Daily Beast. “Putin helped Russia to rise off its knees,” Milov said.
Concerns over a renewed Cold War between Russia and America preoccupied some Altai participants. If the U.S. demonizes Russia, the approach could lead to even more domestic support for Putin, they said, by allowing the Kremlin to paint itself as a victim. Recent polls showed that the number of Americans considering Russia their country’s greatest enemy jumped from 9 percent in 2014 to 18 percent this year; while in Russia, mostly thanks to anti-American statements by Kremlin leaders, 73 percent of people considered the United States Russia’s biggest enemy.
No one country involved in the Ukraine conflict has a monopoly on propaganda, several Altai panelists said. Journalists and political analysts from the Siberian regions around Altai complained that propaganda came from all sides—Russian, Western and Ukrainian disinformation all make it more difficult to understand the real situations, they said. A more immediate threat to the truth comes from Russia's new censorship laws and state pressure on the media, said Sergei Mikhailov, editor-in-chief of the independent paper Listok, and other local journalists who spoke with The Daily Beast.
The forecast for businesses attending the conference was gloomy. Smaller and mid-sized businessmen worried that they could go bankrupt in a few months as the economy falters under new sanctions. A popular prognosis at the forum held that saving Russia’s economy would require Putin to let go of centralized power and for the Kremlin to de-monopolize politics, business and media.
Yvgeny Gontmakher, one of Russia’s leading economists, told forum attendees that Putin himself recognizes that the situation is dire. “Putin realized that current political vertical of state management was not effective and held meetings called ‘the system’s crises,’” Gontmakher said.
“Analyzing the current situation, I would predict that the economy’s growth would shrink by 5 percent in 2015 and that it would be either zero or negative during the coming decade,” Gontmakher concluded. “But all that is not going to matter to the society, as people’s main concern would be where to get food,” the expert added.