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St. Petersburg forum and the myth of Russia’s isolation

Russian President Vladimir Putin with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the St. Petersburg Forum (Photo: @vicktop55/Twitter)

On 20th June, the Atlantic Council published a post by Nataliya Popovych titled “Western Companies Are Still Financing Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Quoting data from the Kyiv School of Economics the article reported that “… out of 1,361 Western companies with Russian subsidiaries at the start of the full-scale invasion, only 241 (17%) have completely exited Russia. The remaining Western companies generated $136 billion in revenues during 2022, thus helping the Kremlin to finance the war in Ukraine.”

Just a few days ago Russia’s flagship St. Petersburg International Economic Forum took place from June 14 to 17.  While western countries have officially been boycotting the forum since 2022, the year Russia launched its “special military operation” in Ukraine, at least 150 companies from 25 ‘unfriendly’ countries,  that have placed sanctions on Russia, participated in the forum, according to Russia Briefing. At least 27 people participated from the US alone. The theme of the forum this year was “Sovereign development as the basis of a just world: joining forces for future generations.”

Roscongress, the organisers, stated that about 900 investment agreements worth about ₽4 trillion (USD 47.6 billion) had been signed. As many as 43 agreements were signed between Russian and foreign businesses, including deals involving companies from Italy and Spain.

The guest country this year was the United Arab Emirates and none other than its President Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan participated in the forum alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The UAE had the largest representation at the forum, with a 200 strong delegation. The delegation itself was led by another high ranking official – Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah. The UAE is a close US ally.

During his meeting with Putin, on the sidelines of the forum, Al Nahyan is reported to have said that he wished to “….build on this relationship and we put our trust in you to do so. Ties between the UAE and Russia have been deepening rapidly since the Syrian civil war when Russian forces helped the Syrian government to degrade and destroy Islamic State (ISIL), amidst a receding US footprint from the region. This has included a deepening of economic ties too. In February this year Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov said that the trade turnover between Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had grown by 68% in 2022 and reached a record high of $9 billion. The UAE had also facilitated a Russia – Ukraine prisoner of war swap.

Russia has also begun focusing anew on strengthening ties with the Arab world.

Another high-level visitor from the Arab world at the SPIEF 23 was the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who held a summit meeting with Putin in Moscow, before he headed to St. Petersburg for the forum.  Besides, other bigwigs from the region who attended the forum included those like Saudi Arabia.

Among other high-level visitors who came to St Petersburg were the Presidents of the Republic of Armenia, and South Ossetia, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Cuba, and over 150 top officials, including heads of international organizations and associations, foreign ministers and heads of diplomatic missions, according to Roscongress.

After the UAE, the largest delegations came from China – 147 members, India – 58, Myanmar – 50,  Cuba – 39, and the United States – 27 members. While Kazakhstan’s President  Kassym-Jomart Tokayev who had participated in the forum last year, did not attend this year, yet Kazakhstan, one of Russia’s closest CIS allies and a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) sent in a 40-member strong delegation. And why not? If overall Russia’s trade volumes with Central Asia hit USD 41 billion in 2022 –  an increase of 20% – then Kazakhstan has been one of those CIS members states that have benefitted handsomely from the sanctions regime.

Another region that attended SPIEF 2023 was ASEAN, with which Russia has been cultivating ties for at least a decade, though this has come into focus more sharply in the wake of the Ukraine war.

Apart from the above, there were also of course representatives from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, other CIS countries, Turkiye, Israel, European countries, Latin America, and Africa that participated in the forum.

Meanwhile, acting head of Russia’s Federal Customs Service Ruslan Davydov said in an interview with Sputnik on the sidelines of the forum that India, China, Turkey and Azerbaijan have replaced the European Union in Russia’s foreign trade.

What does all of this point to in the context of Russia’s so-called isolation? That would be true only if the West was to account for the world. Yet, western news outlets like the New York Times continue to write otherwise.  Yet the world, for the most part, and the Western world in particular, is staying away. Meanwhile, the dollar has been depreciating while the ruble has actually appreciated since the sanctions kicked in. The International Monetary Fund also  believes Russia’s economy could grow by 0.7 percent in 2023.” On the other hand, Germany has already officially declared that it has entered recession.  Last week Forbes reported that Europe’s inflation rates were all higher than that of Brazil, China, India and Saudi Arabia; all the countries that continue to do business with Russia.

One of the major themes at the St. Petersburg Forum was de-dollarisation. While the BRICS countries are mulling over having a common currency, the Arab representatives discussed a common Arab currency. While all of this will not happen overnight, it is not far-fetched to envisage that it can happen with the weaponisation of the dollar. The bottom line is that Russia is not isolated. UAE diplomatic advisor Anwar Gargash said in an interview with CNN that engaging with Russia was “a calculated risk” in a polarised world. It is a risk increasing number of countries are willing to take. India has demonstrated astuteness in continuing its engagement and trade with Russia.