Russia Hosts Experts, Officials Who Criticize America at Annual Conference

Valdai Discussion Club meeting features harsh critiques of Western policies

John J. Mearsheimer, left, and Piotr Dutkiewicz at the Valdai conference in Sochi, Russia (AP)
October 26, 2016

An annual conference held in Russia this week has brought together foreign experts and Russian officials who share critical opinions of the United States and Western powers, during a tense time in relations between Moscow and Washington.

Policy experts, politicians, and journalists are participating in the Valdai Discussion Club's 13th annual meeting this week in Sochi, Russia. The conference consists of discussion forums and meetings with high-ranking Russian officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin will appear at the conference later this week.

Russian state-controlled media outlets covering the proceedings have highlighted criticism of U.S., NATO, and EU policies aired by participants.

John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political science professor, said during a panel discussion on Tuesday that the United States has "foolishly driven" Russia toward cooperation with China, according to Sputnik.

"As a result of the U.S. unipolar positions, the United States tries to move NATO further and further eastwards, antagonizing Russia. … American elites, both Republican and Democratic, failed to appreciate Russia's security concerns. Americans just refused to understand that," Mearsheimer was quoted as saying.

In light of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, he said, Moscow has chosen to side with China instead of siding with the United States or staying neutral.

"[The] situation now looks like Russia is siding with China. Americans have foolishly driven Russia in the arms of the Chinese," Mearsheimer said.

"China views the U.S.-dominated world order as a mess and this is why it does not want to take over," said Fu Ying, who chairs the foreign affairs committee of the Chinese legislature, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines. "Why should China repeat the mistakes which the U.S. did?"

On the sidelines of the conference, Mearsheimer criticized sanctions placed on Russia by the United States and European Union as a result of Moscow's 2014 occupation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.

"The fact is that the Russians didn't cause the Ukraine crisis; the West did for the most part. And the sanctions are not going to work," Mearsheimer told Russia Today. "But it is almost impossible for me to see the Americans taking those sanctions off any time soon. So, I think there is a little hope that we are going to solve the Ukraine crisis and I think U.S.-Russia relations will continue to be bad."

Mearsheimer did not respond to an email asking whether his statements were accurately reported by Russian outlets.

Sergey Karaganov, a Russian political scientist, likewise criticized EU sanctions on Russia in comments reported by TASS.

"The sanctions against Russia is the only matter that provides the EU with an opportunity to demonstrate its unity," Karaganov said. "Meanwhile, everybody has already realized that the sanctions are not effective, so by imposing them the EU inflicts damage on itself."

Relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated following a breakdown of talks over Syria, where Russia is fighting to prop up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad under the pretext of combatting the Islamic State terrorist group. Russia has also grown increasingly hostile toward NATO as the alliance has bolstered forces on its eastern flank in response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, its territory bordering Lithuania and Poland, and held civil defense drills with measures to protect against chemical and nuclear attacks. These actions, in tandem with high tensions, have fueled speculation about the prospect of nuclear war.

"I hope no war breaks out as the fear of the nuclear hell still remains," Karaganov said Tuesday on the sidelines of the Valdai Discussion Club.

During a panel discussion on Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov accused Washington of failing to uphold its part of a September ceasefire agreement in the war-torn country.

"But the U.S. failed to fulfill its part of the obligations or didn't feel like doing it for the reasons known to no one else but itself. In the first place, [it failed] to ensure the separation of the so-called moderate opposition from Jabhat Al-Nusra and other terrorist groupings," Bogdanov said, TASS reported. "We're confident the ceasefire can and must be resumed. A clue to the situation is found in the separation of the moderates and the terrorists."

The latest ceasefire broke down after Russian and Syrian warplanes bombed rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria, killing numerous civilians.

Bogdanov insisted that Russia has "no secret agenda" in Syria and is committed to following a U.N. Security Council resolution outlining a peace process for Syria. The United States has long held that Assad should be removed from power and replaced by a new leader through an election, while Russia has maintained that Assad should be allowed to stand for reelection.

According to a summary of the panel discussion posted on Valdai's website, the participants agreed that "the cause of the arc of instability from the Middle East to Central Eurasia … was the U.S.' decision to enact regime change against regimes that dissatisfied it."

The discussion featured Bogdanov, former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, Iranian Ambassador to Russia Mehdi Sanaei, Kyrgyzstan's former Foreign Affairs Minister Muratbek Imanaliev, and Clifford Kupchan, an American political analyst and former government official who chairs the Eurasia Group.

The Free Beacon attempted to contact Kupchan to verify the summary of the discussion but was unsuccessful.

The first day of the conference featured a special session that explored what would have happened if "the Soviet Union had not collapsed."

"The dissolution of the Soviet Union 25 years ago caught almost everyone by surprise. Although today it appears to have been inevitable, it was--like all major historical upheavals--the result of a combination of objective principles and subjective factors," the club states. "Were it not for the latter, events might have unfolded differently. What would the world be like today if 'the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century' had never happened? Could it have been avoided?"

A special discussion on Wednesday will analyze whether the European Union should be considered "our failed future."

The panel discussions, many of which feature Russian officials, have been covered by Russian media outlets that have focused on critical comments about the West.

Citing statements from foreign participants about Russia's military involvement in Syria and the fate of Assad, the outlet Vestnik Kavkaza ran a story with the headline, "Guests of 'Valdai': the West will soon realize that Russia is right."

The Valdai Discussion Club, established in 2004, pledges to "promote dialogue of Russian and international intellectual elites and to deliver independent objective scholarly analysis of political, economic, and social developments in Russia and the world." Its founders include the Russian International Affairs Council, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and the Council on Foreign Defense Policy, a Russian non-governmental organization.

Several attendees claimed that Valdai organizers paid their travel expenses in a 2014 Bloomberg report, but the discussion club does not appear to have an official policy on paying expenses.

Senior Russian officials are attending the conference, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.

Putin, who has delivered remarks at past meetings, will participate in the final day of the conference, the Kremlin said in a statement.