Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Monday 11 November 2019

Soft power

Putin’s Davos

In Rhodes, a glitzy forum organised by a former KGB spy spreads Russia’s message to the world

By Alexi Mostrous

At the start of the 14th Century, a religious order called the Knights of Saint John seized control of Rhodes, a large island in the South Aegean. The group, which was sworn to defend European Catholicism, built so many churches, monuments and hospitals that Rhodes remains known today as the Island of the Knights.


For 120 years, the Knights’ position looked impregnable. Then, Suleiman the Magnificent, the 10th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, invaded the Christian stronghold with an army of 100,000 men. Rhodes remained a possession of Constantinople for the next four centuries. Civilisations had realigned.

Last month, in a conference centre inside one of the all-inclusive hotels dotted along Rhodes’s unlovely northern coastline, a modern battle between civilisations was being waged, with the West once again under attack.

Chaired by Vladimir Yakunin, a former KGB spy with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Rhodes Forum presents itself as a mini-Davos in a warmer setting: a neutral gathering of 400 thinkers, businessmen, politicians and students who travel to Greece to debate world issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with the president of the Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, 2007

This year, high-level delegates included Martin Schultz, the former president of the European Parliament, and Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel. They flitted between well-organised panels often run by high-profile western journalists, such as Anne McElvoy of the Economist. The main theme of the conference appeared incongruous: how to solve global “disorder” 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet the forum, now in its 17th year, has faced accusations that it is a Putin propaganda-fest and an instrument of Moscow’s hybrid warfare.

“The Rhodes Forum operates closer to a form of weaponry than dialogue,” Joshua Rudolph, a fellow at the non-partisan group Alliance for Securing Democracy, told me. “It’s an influence operation designed to divide and weaken Western societies.”

After attending several panel sessions over the three day event, a pattern began to emerge. Coincidentally or not, many of the delegates favoured Putin-friendly talking points: a distrust of “neoliberal” values, a hatred of the European Union and particularly of Nato, and a sense that, after decades of western hegemony, it was time for other civilisations to come to prominence. Several parroted an interview Putin gave to the Financial Times in June, when the Russian president crowed that Western liberalism had “outlived its purpose”.

“The great civilisations are back,” Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of Russia’s State Duma and vocal Putin supporter, said in one discussion panel. “The fight for Europe was the essence of global politics for centuries. Not any more. Europe is not that relevant. Politically it is a dwarf.”

Vyacheslav Nikonov

Nikonov, the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister under Joseph Stalin, added a warning: “The West should learn. You should speak with others as equals.”

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall, the world is more divided than ever. An Ipsos poll conducted for the BBC last year found that most Europeans believe their countries are more polarised than 10 years ago.

Bolstered by social media and fuelled by wars and recessions, divisions have worsened among young and old, rich and poor, immigrant and indigenous populations and between religious affiliations. “All of Europe shows a similar trend,” said Ipsos MORI’s Glenn Gottfried.

Outside the continent things are, if anything, worse. President Donald Trump has moved America away from the cause of liberal democracy, while countries such as Turkey, led by Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, have transitioned to plebiscitary dictatorships (sometimes called “illiberal democracies”). In China, Xi Jinping has reinforced the supremacy of party over state. Freedom in the World, a monitoring group, has recorded global declines in political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018.

Supporters cheer as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a pre-election rally

Although the causes of such fractions are multi-layered, it is widely accepted that Russia has helped foment such unrest. While media coverage has tended to focus on Putin’s use of bot armies and fake Facebook profiles, Moscow has also stepped up its use of soft-power initiatives, such as state-friendly think tanks, conferences and academic papers which promote the Putin line.

“Russia considers the global information community to be fundamentally skewed or biased in favour of the West,” a recent paper on soft power published by the Swedish Defence Agency states. “This is why there is an insistence on the need to bring ‘unbiased information’ about global events and to provide an ‘objective image’ of Russia.”

The report named a number of organisations which it said operated in this way, including the Gorchakov Foundation and Russky Mir, a state-backed institution aimed at promoting Russian culture. As it happens, Nikonov, the Duma member who spoke at Rhodes, is Russky Mir’s chief executive, while Yakunin sits on its board.

Where does Rhodes fit into Putin’s propaganda spectrum? Is Yakunin’s conference an independent attempt to foster dialogue between disparate nations, or part of a sophisticated soft-power network designed to propel Moscovian talking points into political discourse?

Supporters point to the forum’s ability to attract high-profile Western guests, including heads of state, even after Yakunin was sanctioned in the US in 2014 for his closeness to Putin. This year’s gathering, for instance, included several representatives from British universities, such as the LSE. Unlike state-backed think tanks, neither the DoC nor Rhodes received government funding, its spokesman said.

By no means all of the panels were Russia-focused, either. Several had Western-friendly voices, including the one moderated by McElvoy on culture and technology (McElvoy told me that she found many of the discussions interesting but would have reservations about attending again).

And yet, at least some of this year’s delegates claimed the conference was operating on more than one level. “This hall is full of spies,” one seasoned attendee told me over coffee, as he pointed out what he described as a surprising number of young Moscow State university students. “Everything here has a subtext.”

(The Free Russia Foundation, a nonprofit operating in the US, has claimed the forum is known to Western intelligence agencies as a “KGB team-building exercise”. A spokesman for the Dialogue of Civilizations, the Yakunin-founded think tank that puts on the conference, said such suggestions “did not stand up to a moment’s rational thought.”)

Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukraine and Russian expert at Chatham House, told me that Rhodes presented Russia as a separate global civilisation “entitled” to its own development space. The forum reinforced the theory, she said, that different value systems should be seen as equal even when they downgraded “liberal” concepts such as freedom of expression and human rights. By speaking at the event, she said, Western public figures were legitimising this tactic.

“Rhodes helps to harbour groups which are anti-liberal and service the Russian mouth-piece,” she said. “When we are arguing about civilisations and how you define them, that’s exactly where Russia wants us to be. They like this ambiguity.”

Laura Rosenberger, a foreign policy expert, pointed out that the Dialogue of Civilizations (DoC) is only one of Yakunin’s many organisations, several of which spread socially-conservative messages within Russia and abroad.  “Yakunin’s foundations and their initiatives…. have helped position Russia as a defender of Christian, European values against what Russian media and government officials call an onslaught of liberal decadence and non-white, non-Christian migrants,” she said.

Yakunin is certainly a social-conservative. The 71-year-old has previously warned that the “propaganda of homosexuality was the same pollutant for the social environment as other pollutants were for the natural one”. He has also repeatedly allowed the Rhodes Forum itself to be used to promote illiberal views.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia (L) and Vladimir Yakunin light candles with a flame delivered from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In 2017, the forum hosted a number of speakers from the World Congress of Families (WCF), an American coalition that aggressively opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a group monitoring hate and extremism in the US.

Theresa Okafor, the WCF’s regional director in Africa, has appeared at at least three Rhodes conferences. In 2013 she linked South Africa’s approval of same-sex marriage to its high crime rate, telling delegates that “the gay lobby will have a negative impact on children”.

“It will abuse the minds of children,” she said. “It’s an attack on the law of gravity.” In 2012, Okafor went so far as to suggest that Western gay-rights activists might be in league with Boko Haram, the terrorist group, to target Christians.

In 2014, one of Yakunin’s foundations, called St Andrew the First Called, co-hosted a pro-family conference in Moscow. Aymeric Chauprade, a far-right French politician, was a star guest alongside several of the WCF’s leadership. Chauprade warned of a “war waged between a savage world of abortions, surrogacy, same-sex marriage, and child abuse, and a spiritual world that supports traditional values.” Other far-right politicians who attended included Spain’s Ignacio Arsuaga. Putin sent a personal message of support via video-link.

A few months later, in November 2014, Yakunin appeared at an event hosted in Berlin called Frieden mit Russland! (Peace with Russia!). The organiser was Compact magazine, a monthly German publication in Germany which sympathises with the country’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The conference reportedly featured officials from the NPD, a neo-Nazi party in Germany, the then deputy of the AFD, Alexander Gauland, and Oskar Freysinger, a politician with the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), according to a report by Der Spiegel.

Jean Christophe Bas, a charming Frenchman who last year took over the DoC and wants to expand the organisation, told me he had raised the WCF with Yakunin before taking the job. “I said to him very clearly: listen, I have a completely different approach on that,” he said, promising that LGBT+ and family issues “will never [again] be on the DOC agenda.”

If they were, Bas implied, he would quit. “I took my job last year just when I was turning 60. You know, 60 is not really the time in your life when you start compromising your values. I’m a strong believer in the value of democracy and freedom of speech and expression. But I think we need to agree that we cannot just speak among ourselves.”

Policemen detain a LGBT activist during a protest in Moscow, 2017

Globalisation had focused too heavily on boosting trade and economics while ignoring historic and cultural differences, Bas said. What the DoC wanted to do, he said, was to “put the human, culture and civilisation at the heart of globalisation.”

A DoC spokesman said that Yakunin attends dozens of conferences around the world every year with participants across the political spectrum. Focusing on one or two historic events was “selective at best”. Criticism of the forum, the spokesman said, usually came from people with axes to grind and were inaccurate. The foundation which put on the Moscow Event had “nothing to do with the DoC and Rhodes,” he said.

On the last day of the conference, I met with Yakunin in a VIP area of the hotel, and was invited to sit at a table spread out with fruit and cake. Having learnt that I had Greek heritage, he asked an aide to bring us bitter Greek coffee, which he did not drink.

Arguing that the WCF was a legitimate foundation, Yakunin accepted he was conservative. “The moment the baby is born it is trying to reach the breast, yes? This is nature. What kind of breasts can a baby in a position [of having gay parents] reach?”

But he denied paying for the 2014 Moscow conference, even though the St Andrew’s foundation’s website stated that it was the organiser, and leaked documents later suggested that it funded the plane tickets of many of the delegates, including Chauprade and Arsuaga.

Vladimir Yakunin attends the 2014 Large Families conference

Yakunin said the funding had instead came from another Russian oligarch called Konstantin Malofeev, who is known as “God’s banker” for his devotion to socially conservative causes.

Malofeev, who is fervently pro-Putin, has been linked to right wing figures across Europe. Experts such as Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukranian writer, have suggested that he, more than Yakunin, maintained such contacts and used them to promote Russian interests. Pictures from the Moscow conference show both men sitting together on the podium – next to Chauprade, the far-right French politician.

Vladimir Yakunin

Sporting an A. Lange & Söhne watch worth at least £25,000, Yakunin relayed to me a fable about a man who punched someone but then tried to avoid punishment by arguing that he had accidentally hit his opponent while gesticulating. “The ruling of the judge was this,” Yakunin said. “Your personal freedom finishes where the nose of your opponent begins.”

For the 71-year-old, the message was clear. Western countries were welcome to all the neoliberal, gender-bending, LGBT+ policies they could take. But no-one should try and impose such “values” on Russia (or China, or Africa). Of course, Yakunin did not accept that Russia often punched the nose of its own opponents by attempting to interfere in their systems of government.

As a KGB spy living in New York in the 1970s, Yakunin was trained to “detect weaknesses in others,” according to his autobiography, The Treacherous Path.

“We were taught how to subtly change our expression of our eyes, the tightness of our skin, the cast of our jaws,” he said. “At times I can be all soft and full of laughter, at others I can be like a beast.”

After leaving the FSB, the successor to the KGB, in 1995, Yakunin made money in a variety of ventures during the turbulence of 1990s Russia. He was shocked by the lawlessness of the period and turned against supposed reformers such as Boris Yeltsin. In 2005 he was promoted by  Putin, whom he had known since the early 1990s, to the head of Russian Railways, the largest company in the country. He held the hugely powerful post until 2015, when he unexpectedly quit. The reasons for his departure are still unclear.

Vladimir Yakunin, Martin Schultz and Ehud Olmert at the Rhodes conference

Yakunin’s autobiography leaves no doubt as to his impression of Putin. While Gorbachev, a figure lauded in the West, was a fool who had no idea what he was doing, Putin was “loyal” and a rare politician who survived the turbulent post-USSR period “with his conscience intact.”

Yakunin’s veneration of Putin has proved too much for some Rhodes attendees. A few days before this year’s event was due to start, James Rubin, a former state department official during President Bill Clinton’s administration, pulled out of the conference after he found out who Yakunin was. “Although I intended to speak my mind at the Rhodes event, I certainly did not want to appear to give legitimacy to any of the individuals who have supported Russia’s pernicious policies around the world,” he told The Daily Beast.

On the last night of the conference, delegates enjoyed rare beef steak and vintage red wine in the Rhodes Palace Hotel’s glittering ballroom. Yakunin sat at a table holding court with Olmert, the Israeli ex-PM, and Ivor Ichikowitz, the founder and executive chairman of the Paramount Group, the largest private arms manufacturer in Africa. He waved at me amiably before turning back to his food.

A day earlier, I spoke to Martin Schultz, the former European Parliament chief who robustly defended the case for Western values in a panel. He acknowledged that Rhodes risked giving weight to anti-democratic viewpoints – including Russia’s.

“You are right,” he said. “But I would argue the other way around. Perhaps you could consider my answer. If there are not such forums, they would not be confronted directly with people like me.”

Photographs Getty Images, anton-shekhovtsov.blogspot.com, doc-research.org

All our journalism is built to be shared. No walls here – as a member you have unlimited sharing

Further reading

A long report on Russian soft power by Carolina Vendil Pallin and Susanne Oxenstierna.

I can be like a beast: read Vladimir Yakunin’s autobiography here.

The charming head of the Dialogue of Civilizations gives a summary of the Rhodes conference.

A great Chatham House research paper on “Agents of the Russian World”.