SURF Reflections — Day Two (Russian Government and Industry)

You can find the previous day’s reflection here.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Monday the SURF delegation heard from Russia’s top foreign policy intellectuals. Tuesday, however, we met with Russia’s top foreign policy practitioners. The exterior of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is suitably imposing: a projection of confidence in sculpted stone, with tiny windows peppering the facade. As we waited outside, signing the Stanford-branded football we would soon present to our hosts, a fine snow fell slow and slanted. Career foreign affairs officials routed around our shivering huddle. “What a Tuesday morning”, I remember thinking.

Briefing Room - Photo Courtesy of SURF
Briefing Room — Photo Courtesy of SURF

We were soon led inside to the coat check and ultimately, through a series of rug-lined hallways, the main briefing room. Here we were met by Alexey Drobinin and his staff, representing the Foreign Policy Planning Department. Drobinin, the deputy head of the department, brought along with him domain experts on BRICs relations, long term planning, and arctic affairs. This meeting was organized around Drobinin’s remarks on the Russian government’s strategic outlook and foreign policy objectives. Perhaps it will come as no surprise when I report that this outlook and these objectives closely mirror the expert panel’s pronouncements from the day before. The degree of foreign policy cohesion we observed is striking. Among the points highlighted by both these officials and Monday’s academic panel:

A Seat at the Table - Photo Courtesy of SURF
A Seat at the Table — Photo Courtesy of SURF
  • We are living in a time of incredible change
  • The most fundamental event of the last two decades is the shift in economic activity form North America to the far East.
  • A consequence of this shift is that the geopolitical landscape is changing. Geopolitical clout that used to be more concentrated is becoming dispersed.
  • It is important for political elites to discover how to harmonize their interests, but this process could take more than a decade.

But where the expert panel dealt in abstractions and “pragmatic theorizing”, our ministry hosts prioritized examples of concrete challenges facing the Russian Federation. Seemingly every topic was on the table. In a matter of minutes I heard both a frank discussion of the challenges of Russia’s domestic economic development initiatives and an emphatic declaration that “NATO no longer has a raison d’être”. The diversity of issues, and the representatives of the policy planning department’s ability to intelligently address these issues, was impressive. Much like the previous day’s meetings, I could write a whole series of posts on our time at the ministry. For now, I can relay Russia’s foreign policy objectives according to the team tasked with realizing them.

  1. Russia is independent by its nature, which means that it is not possible to do something against its interests.
  2. The sheer size of Russia dictates behavior
  3. Russian foreign policy needs to be very diversified geographically: multifaceted
  4. Russia is a relatively young country. In foreign policy they can speak of giving up ideology. They have no agenda for spreading an ideology.

So there are the foreign policy principles guiding the policy planning staff: Independence, Global Interests, and Pragmatism.

A Tense Thirty Minutes — Photo Courtesy of SURF

The delegates had plenty of questions about how these objectives are translated into official policy, but I will have to save those insights for another time. Before I leave the foreign ministry behind, I should note that after our group meeting we again broke out into smaller teams to converse with domain experts from the ministry. I was placed in the group which met with Vladimir Andreev, the Deputy Head of the Department of New Challenges and Threats. It is not for this post, but perhaps another time I will write about this much more contentious meeting. I hope it is sufficient to write that this meeting’s tone was far more pessimistic than any other during the course of the opening conference.

A Slightly Different Tone — Photo Courtesy of SURF

After leaving the Ministry, we sprinted over to the Russian Duma. We were incredibly lucky to be invited up to the Committee on International Affairs conference room. None other than Leonid Slutskiy, the “Russian John McCain” was there to greet us. He brought along with him a fellow committee member and prominent Duma deputy Inga Yumasheva. Compared to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs deep-dive into substantial issues, this meeting was more superficial. However, there was still a great deal of interesting discussion centered on Eurasian integration and opportunities to improve the US-Russia bilateral relationship. Slutskiy, his deep voice booming across the conference room, assured us that he would love to visit the states soon, especially California. After pausing a second for effect, he added that any such trip will have to wait until he is removed from the US sanctions list.

Duma Conference Room

SURF is not for the faint of heart. We skipped lunch and navigated from the Duma to Boeing Russia. There the delegation was treated to a very informative tour and information session. I suspect this meeting was more fruitful for the SURF team focused on opportunities for collaboration in space exploration. But I must admit, I enjoyed learning about Boeing’s presence in Russia and the incredible logistical challenges involved in modern aircraft production.

We ended our day in the executive suites of Sberbank’s headquarters. Sberbank is one of the leading consumer banks in Russia, and by far the most innovative. We were fortunate to be able to meet with Maxim Savchenko, the managing director of Sberbank’s AI lab, and Evginy Kolbin, the head of B2B digital banking. SURF delegates asked questions on topics as diverse as cybersecurity and innovation management. It was beyond fascinating to see the Russian perspective on building “Fintech”. Speaking of Fintech, our team gathered some helpful information from our Sberbank hosts. Again, it’s probably too nerdy for this post. But if you are interested in the Russian perspective on autonomous logistical agents powered by machine learning and the blockchain- let me know!

Sberbank HQ — Photo Courtesy of SURF

I hope you enjoyed this reflection on the “Government and Industry” day of the SURF opening conference. Feel free to start a conversation with me on twitter