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Russia is finding new supporters after being isolated by the West

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and other Western governments have attempted to isolate Moscow politically and through sanctions economically. But Russia insists it still has plenty of friends to trade with. NPR Russia correspondent Charles Maynes went to meet some of them at an economic forum in St. Petersburg.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (Speaking Russian).

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: I'm staring up at a giant robot, or more precisely a giant robot Transformer, like in those Hollywood movies. It has to be at least 15 feet tall, and it's nothing if not self-assured. The engine of the Russian economy cannot be stopped, it tells me in Russian, and then this.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Mm," it adds. "I love the smell of economic success in the morning." The young salesperson, Alyssa Kostenkova (ph), tells me it's promoting Russian electric vehicles made in China.

ALYSSA KOSTENKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Why wait to build our own, and we've got a good reliable partner now?" says Kostenkova. And she has a point. Despite the destruction of the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions and repressions at home that have followed, many Russians argue the country is not only adapting, it's racing ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ADVISER: (Speaking Russian).

ANTON SILUANOV: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED ADVISER: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In a panel discussion, the Kremlin's top economic advisers were clearly elated over new world bank projections that show Russia's economy growing faster than their Western counterparts, surpassing even the Kremlin's best expectations.

SILUANOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "The reason is sanctions. The West imposed them and shot themselves in the foot," says Russia's finance minister Anton Siluanov when asked to explain Russia's success. "Now their economies are stagnating while ours grows." What Siluanov doesn't acknowledge is that weapons production is the main driver of Russia's growth. He argues sanctions ended the West's access to Russian energy resources, even as they forced Moscow to become more innovative, more self-reliant, to find new and more reliable partners. And that plays into a view you hear a lot in Russia these days, that the West is in trouble and the U.S., in particular, is losing its role as global leader as new centers of political and economic power emerge. That it's an idea promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin or, say, China is not surprising. That you should hear it from a former member of the CIA maybe is.

LARRY C JOHNSON: Well, we're living through an ethical (ph) period in history, the end of U.S. hegemony. The international rules-based order that was established in the wake of World War II is coming to an end.

MAYNES: Larry C. Johnson is an ex-agency analyst, who, these days, takes decidedly pro-Russian views about the West decline and about Russia's actions in Ukraine. He argues Americans don't hear the truth about the war in Ukraine. Why? Because Western media, including he argues this one, shun controversial views, views that challenge mainstream narratives.

JOHNSON: NPR won't have me on anymore. NPR won't have me on to talk about the war in Ukraine to provide an alternative point of view.

MAYNES: In fact, alternative views of how the world could be are all over the economic forum, including a souvenir stand that featured a signed portrait of Putin with former President Donald Trump at a price tag of $50,000. And there are other signs the world might be changing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a leading Russian bank opening its first branch in China, Russian and Chinese officials traded compliments as they stood under a massive inflatable red dragon. Where once Russia courted Western governments and investors, today Beijing is the top priority. But so too is developing new partnerships and sympathy for Russian world view throughout the so-called Global South, which includes the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

AWANA ATEBA MICHEL: Many people forgot that in 2014 about Crimea, there was already sanction.

MAYNES: Awana Ateba Michel (ph), a businessman from Cameroon, says he's been impressed at how Russia has adapted to waves of Western sanctions dating back to the Kremlin's initial annexation of Crimea from Ukraine a decade ago.

MICHEL: We know that Russian have a very big capacity to adapt each time, and some people are surprised. But what I didn't know is that Russian was prepared more than 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: At the forum's keynote event, President Putin welcomed the leaders of Bolivia and Zimbabwe before an audience that included Afghanistan's Taliban, conservative Orthodox Christians, Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin elite. Addressing Putin as his dear brother, Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared his support for Russia and its vision of a so-called multipolar world united against the West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMERSON MNANGAGWA: The old geopolitical global order, dominated by a select few, resulting in the perpetual marginalization of most of us in the Global South, is no longer acceptable.

MAYNES: And in pursuit of that new global vision, some are suggesting drastic measures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: The event's Kremlin-chosen moderator repeatedly urged Putin to use nuclear weapons against the West over its military support to Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Putin ruled out a nuclear strike for now. Yet for some, the tone of the discussion suggested more turmoil ahead for a country that has known plenty throughout its history.

GEORGE ROMANOV: I'm Mr. George Romanov. I might be grand duke of Russia, His Imperial Highness for who wants to be very protocol-like.

MAYNES: George Romanov knows that turmoil better than most. He's a distant relative of Russia's last emperor, Czar Nicholas II of the Romanov dynasty, before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 swept Nicholas from power and George's great-grandfather, the cousin of the czars, into life in exile in Europe. In fact, Grand Duke George only returned to Russia full time in the Putin years.

ROMANOV: You might like him, or you might not like him, but he is the person that brought the Russia that we live in today.

MAYNES: And these days, the Grand Duke says he'll do anything to help his country, anything but politics.

ROMANOV: Listen, politics is very complicated. It's something that my family did for many years. I don't think we need to do it again.

MAYNES: And with that, the future of the Romanov dynasty headed out to a party, leaving today's Russia in the hands of its modern-day czar.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, St. Petersburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Charles Maynes
[Copyright 2024 NPR]