The St Petersburg International Economic Forum, now in its eighteenth year, was less well attended than usual. The absence of various American and West European CEOs, responding to pressure from their governments following sanctions on Russia, was heavily commented upon in the West.
Less widely noticed was one of the most important pieces of news to emerge from Russia since the Soviet collapse of the early-1990s – namely the $400bn deal struck between Moscow and Beijing, under which Russia supplies 38bn cubic metres (bcm) of gas to China over 30 years from 2018.
“The unipolar model of the world is over,” declared Vladimir Putin last week. “The global picture has completely changed”.
The St Petersburg International Economic Forum was less well-attended than usual. During previous visits to this annual “Russian Davos”, now in its eighteenth year, I’ve regularly been mown-down by American and West European CEOs, as they’ve purposefully stomped down carpet-tiled corridors, their retinue of aides and cameras in tow.
This year, while plenty of Western executives did make the annual trek to Russia’s beautiful second city, keen to sell more cars, soap powder and financial services in Europe’s most valuable consumer market, the corridors were safer. Many of the top business names stayed away. The sanctions imposed on Russia in response to events in Ukraine put Western business leaders under pressure. Fearing unsavory headlines, and often responding to specific government requests, some of our best-known corporate pole-climbers gave “Putin’s vanity summit” a miss.
William Hague was on rather shaky ground when he argued this week that Moscow has chosen “the route to isolation” by recognizing Crimea’s referendum. On the contrary, it is the European Union and the United States who look as if they have seriously overplayed their respective hands in Ukraine. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the cry of “Western hypocrisy” has been heard much louder than complaints about Vladimir Putin.
Even in the UK, mainstream opinion is steadily becoming more critical of Western interventionism and our “New Cold War” posturing – despite some pretty one-sided media coverage and much establishment “tut-tutting”. Independent thought is still viewed with suspicion, and even disgust, by some – and I should know, having consistently argued we should negotiate with Moscow, not threaten tough sanctions we’ll never impose.
This Crimean crisis is, perhaps, reaching its apogee. As a referendum is held on the Black Sea peninsula, a territory 25pc bigger than Wales and home to 2m people, the stand-off between Russia and the West continues, dominating the global news-cycle.
Talk of a new Cold War is deeply alarmist. Politicians on both sides are posturing in front of each other and their respective electorates. Be in no doubt, though, relations between Russia and the US are now at their lowest ebb since the Soviet Union collapsed over 22 years ago.
I’ve been struck in recent days by the growing gulf between conflicting points of view towards the crisis in Crimea. I’m not referring to the firmly held differences in opinion between respective governments in London and Washington on the one hand and Moscow on the other. What I have in mind, after numerous conversations and broadcasts about Russia and Ukraine over the last week, and having closely followed events in this region for many years, is the polarization of opinion within the West itself.
As far as our politicians and diplomats are concerned, Russia remains the Cold War enemy, our implacably foe, where little or nothing has changed since US President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire”. Never mind that the USSR collapsed almost a quarter of a century ago, or that it was 31 years ago yesterday that Reagan made that speech.
Who cares if post-Soviet Russia has transformed itself, via the chaos of the 1990s, from a closed, sclerotic, planned economy based on armaments and commodities, into a nascent capitalist society, well-integrated into global commerce and, unlike any other large emerging market, with a fully-open capital account?
“There will be significant costs and consequences” following Russia’s intervention in Crimea. So said Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday. But what can the West actually do to challenge Vladimir Putin’s Russia? How far are we prepared to go to determine the future of a small, sun-kissed territory that juts out from Southern Ukraine?
Crimea lies at the heart of a region that is, and always has always, hugely strategic. This picturesque peninsula has seen centuries of conquest, be it at the hands of Greeks or Scythians, the Byzantians or the British. It was the importance of the Black Sea ports to the grain trade, after all, which provoked the Anglo-Russian Crimean War under Queen Victoria, with its glorious, yet ultimately doomed Charge of the Light Brigade.
It would appear that a deal has been struck in Ukraine. We must hope that it holds. The plan is to hold early presidential elections, by December 2014, while immediately returning to the 2004 constitution, which bolsters the power of Parliament.
It remains to be seen if these concessions will placate those who’ve protested so angrily and forcefully against incumbent President Victor Yanukovich. While keeping our fingers crossed for calm in Kiev, we should also watch closely the reaction of the many millions of Ukrainians in the Russian-speaking South and East of the country, who voted for Yanukovich as their President back in 2010. That election, let us not forget, was judged by the internationally-respected and Western-backed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to be “fair”, “truly competitive” and an “impressive display” of democracy.
UK car sales are now the second-highest in Europe. I know that’s true because I repeatedly heard it on a variety of national news bulletins last week and read it on the front page of several respected business newspapers. Yet it’s only true up to a point.
No-one is denying that 2.3m new cars were sold in Britain in 2013, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. That compares to 2.9m cars bought in Germany and marks a 10.8pc increase on UK car sales the year before.
This latest round of eurozone “crisis diplomacy” is set against a backdrop of growing evidence that the world economy is slowing. For weeks, global stock markets have been treading water, remaining relatively buoyant but on extremely low volumes, waiting for the QE lifeboat.
It really does seem as if every financial analyst in the world is fixated on the big central banks, anticipating the moment when the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and – as Berlin finally capitulates – the European Central Bank fire-up their virtual printing presses.