It’s a contrast to the treatment of Russia after Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Even though Russia’s official presence at Davos dwindled, its billionaires and business leaders didn’t downgrade their profiles.
Flocking to the Alps to enjoy Switzerland’s longstanding policy of neutrality in 2015, VTB chairman and Chief Executive Officer Andrey Kostin said “we have friends here. Ukrainian friends, European friends, American friends.”
While some business relations were hit by sanctions, “that doesn’t affect personal relationships,” Kostin, a frequent Davos attendant, said at the time.
That year VTB threw a soiree at the ski resort’s InterContinental Hotel, where visitors were greeted by women in conical, gold-flecked outfits with strips of neon-LED lights wrapped around them. Caviar was served and partygoers serenaded by guitarist Al Di Meola, Russian crooner Leonid Agutin, plus Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra.
While the party didn’t match the extravagance of events hosted by metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska over the years (one was styled after a Russian log house), it drew a strong crowd, one that included Schwab. While he usually shies away from private events, he said at the time he attended to show “our Russian friends that they are welcome in Davos” and that, “after all, Russia is a very important European country.”
For Russia’s post-communist history, the WEF has played an important role.
The conference cemented its reputation as an essential event for the Russian elite in 1996, when several tycoons agreed to pool their media resources and financial power to back Boris Yeltsin’s flagging reelection campaign in what became known as the “Davos Pact.”
The Russian delegation grew in size and visibility for nearly two decades, attracting heavyweights like then-President Dmitry Medvedev and, in 2009, Putin during his stint as prime minister.
In 2011, a Russian investment bank put on what it called a “spectacular ice show” performed by figure-skating stars.
In 2018 Russia threatened a boycott after the U.S. sanctioned businessmen Viktor Vekselberg, Deripaska and Kostin. The Kremlin said organizers backed off a plan to ban them from attending.
Putin addressed the stripped down COVID-era virtual forum last year, drawing parallels between current international tensions and the 1930s in the run-up to World War II. He used his speech to warn the world risked sliding into an “all against all” conflict.
Now his attack on Ukraine has brought conflict to the European Union’s borders, killed untold thousands and seen millions flee their homes.
Some Russian tycoons have toed the Kremlin’s line, while others have sought to separate themselves from the president’s warmongering.
Deripaska, whose connections to Putin have put him on sanctions lists, called the war “insanity” in late March. He warned fighting could continue for “several more years.”
That’s not going to be enough to get him invited anywhere like Davos again soon. Meanwhile multiple breakfasts, panels and evening events featuring Ukrainian officials are booked out.
As for Russia House, the plan is to rebrand it. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation, a philanthropic group named after its tycoon backer, intends to turn the site into a “Russia War Crimes House,” including an exhibition on war crimes allegedly committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.