By Erik Henningsmoen, member of the Canadian International Council's Young Professionals Network
Erik Henningsmoen attended PICREADI’s Meeting Russia program in 2018 and observed the program proceedings in 2022 as an alumni observer. The opinions expressed within his notes, observations and reflections are solely the author’s. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the CRRI or its members.
PICREADI, a Russian public diplomacy NGO and think tank, hosted its annual flagship program “Meeting Russia 2022” from May 25-26, 2022. Each year, Meeting Russia brings together an international cohort of young participants from backgrounds such as media, academia, business, and public policy. The program is designed to engage students and young professionals, who are interested in international relations, about Russia’s role and interests in global affairs.
With funding provided by the Russian government’s Presidential Grants Foundation, each year the Meeting Russia program hosts dozens of Russian government officials, academics, journalists, and think tank researchers as speakers. The Meeting Russia program has been hosted by PICREADI annually since 2017, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was held in-person in Moscow. Since 2020, Meeting Russia has been held online. For Meeting Russia 2022, the Gorchakov Fund and the Russia-BRICS Project Office of International Youth Cooperation supported the program as media partners.
Unlike similar Russian public diplomacy initiatives, such as the Valdai Discussion Club, PICREADI’s focus on students and young professionals provides the Meeting Russia program with a unique place in Russia’s foreign affairs discussion. Yet there is little coverage available in Western publications on PICREADI and Meeting Russia.
I was a participant of Meeting Russia back in 2018, when I travelled to Moscow to participate in the program. As a member of the Meeting Russia alumni community, PICREADI was kind enough to invite me to observe the program proceedings for Meeting Russia 2022. This note has been written as a modest attempt to expand Western overage of PICREADI’s Meeting Russia program. As the war in Ukraine continues and as the West’s relations with Russia continue to degrade as a result, coverage of initiatives such as Meeting Russia become increasingly pertinent.
The note outlines my observations regarding the themes that emerged during the presentations and discussions. This note has not been written to justify nor to criticize Russian foreign policy, nor has it been written to promote or validate any of the ideas and opinions expressed during the program proceedings. Instead, this note is of a documentary and summative nature.
As such, the note will adhere to the Chatham House Rule, and thus it will not identify any individual speakers or participants, nor their institutional affiliations. Interested readers can find PICREADI’s own coverage of the 2022 Meeting Russia program on its website.,
My intention in writing this note is to paint a picture of the proceedings, for the benefit of Western researchers interested in Russian foreign policy, soft power and cultural exchange, and strategic communications. For readers in Canada, and other Western countries, there will be little stated during the Meeting Russia 2022 proceedings that you will agree with, so please ready yourself.
A Shift in Russian Cultural Diplomacy
In 2022 there was a noticeable shift in the regional emphasis of the Meeting Russia program. In the earlier iterations of Meeting Russia, participants were drawn almost exclusively from the United States, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, and Canada. Starting in 2022, Meeting Russia program participants have been recruited from a wider geographic scope and hailed from countries such as India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and parts of Latin America.
The shift in the nationalities of Meeting Russia participants demonstrates a wider shift in focus for Russian cultural diplomacy efforts. These efforts see Russia moving away from the West and towards the BRICS and emerging economies of the Global South. This is not surprising in 2022 given the currently rancorous relations between Russia and the West.
I suspect it would have been very challenging for PICREADI to recruit qualified participants from Western countries under our current geopolitical circumstances. And furthermore, with Russian soft power all but eradicated in Western countries in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, there is probably little to gain for PICREADI to develop further Western contacts. It is also hard to imagine this situation reversing itself any time soon — cultural exchange between the West and Russia has for all purposes ended with the Ukraine invasion.
A Post-February 2022 Reordering of International Affairs
The most prominent — and perhaps the overarching theme of the entire Meeting Russia proceedings — is a reordering of international affairs in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Regardless of whether Russia fails or succeeds in its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, geopolitics has irreversibly changed as a result. This reordering of international affairs spans international diplomacy, international trade and economic flows, media and cultural exchange, and military and security affairs. It was clear from listening to Russian experts from a variety of fields that this reordering of international affairs will be far-reaching. It is not limited to just Eastern Europe but is global in scope.
While none of the speakers framed Russia as a revisionist power, the subtext was certainly present during the proceedings. One speaker framed the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as, for better or for worse, an attempt by Russia to upturn an “unjust structure” that was placed on the country since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. For this speaker, the conflict in Ukraine, and Russia’s saber rattling in Eastern Europe, are attempts to use Russian military strength to place the country in a more advantageous position, akin to the Soviet diplomatic gains made at the Yalta Conference at the tail end of the Second World War. A number of speakers believed that Russia is presently in a geopolitically disadvantageous position visa vie the West, and therefore needs to take actions in its foreign policy to transcend its current status.
Alongside a reordering of international affairs, some speakers went a step further, suggesting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a major step in realising a post-Soviet path to national self-determination for Russia. For these speakers, this self-determination includes a right for Russia to intervene militarily in its near abroad in pursuit of its national security goals — one expert cited the example of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and United Kingdom as a precedent for such actions.
Under this interpretation of Russian strategy, Ukraine was framed, as one speaker put it, as a “ticking time bomb.” Arguments were made by some speakers that in the lead up to the February 2022 invasion, the Ukrainian government was becoming increasingly hostile and threatening to Russian security. Furthermore, these experts named European states such as Poland and Germany as continuing security threats to Russia.
NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War was a commonly cited Russian security concern amongst the participating speakers. NATO is not seen as a purely defensive alliance amongst Russian strategists, so eastward NATO expansion is perceived as incredibly alarming to the Russian foreign affairs and national security communities.
BRICS as a New Non-Aligned Movement
The potential of the BRICS countries (i.e., Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to form a new counterweight to Western dominance in global affairs was another notable theme of the Meeting Russia proceedings. Numerous speakers suggested that a robust BRICS political union could be used by Russia, and the other BRICS countries, as a tool to, as one speaker put it, “resist American globalism.” These experts argued that the Western-dominated world order is in a state of terminal decline.
It was asserted that BRICS could be a way for non-aligned countries to escape a morbid and unfairly structured Western-lead international system. Emerging economies of the future are in need of an alternative to outdated Western-dominated international institutions. These speakers believed that BRICS was a promising alternative to Western hegemony.
A number of speakers observed that other non-Western emerging economies have an opportunity to participate in BRICS under the BRICS+ framework. This creates the potential for BRICS+ to become a new non-aligned movement that could span across the Global South. As one speaker put it, BRICS+ has the potential to be an “integrator of integrators” to bring together regional political and economic unions. One example that was proposed was for the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union to join a super-bloc of other non-Western economic unions such as ASEAN and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Experts observed that BRICS is not only an emerging geopolitical and economic bloc, but also a forum for cultural exchange. Youth-based groups working within the institutional framework of BRICS, such as the annual BRICS Youth Summit, have been an important catalyst for further cooperation between BRICS countries. BRICS Cities was named as an example of a useful subject-specific fora that BRICS countries can use to jointly work on specific policy issues in areas such as sustainability and urban development.
As a whole, the Meeting Russia discussions regarding BRICS verged — by this author’s estimation – towards an anti-Western tone. But the anti-Western rhetoric displayed during the BRICS discussions was not voiced out of outright hostility to the West, but through a desire to transcend the West. Though the resentment was still evident.
Yet it is questionable whether the BRICS countries have enough political and economic commonality to hold BRICS/BRICS+ together as a geopolitical bloc moving into the future. It is worth recalling that BRICS as a concept originates from 2001 research paper published by the American investment bank Goldman Sachs, a quintessential actor in Western financial globalism.
The 2022 Russia-Ukraine War
While a specific session regarding Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was not scheduled during the proceedings, the topic naturally came up during speaker presentations and afterwards during discussions. There was a widespread acknowledgement amongst experts that Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine was not going well and that the fighting had revealed significant gaps in Russia’s military capabilities.
After significant setbacks in the opening phases of the war, Russian military planners were said to be approaching the conflict in Ukraine through a “trial and error” approach with no overarching strategy. Russia’s military failure in Ukraine has become even more self-evident, with major Ukrainian victories in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions during the summer and fall of 2022.
One speaker with significant expertise in security affairs commented that Russia’s military success in Syria had made military planners overly confident in the Russian armed forces’ overall capabilities. Planners were said to have drawn the wrong lessons from the Syrian conflict and were caught off-guard during the initial phases of the February 2022 Ukraine invasion. One expert noted that the Russian armed forces have a long history of drawing improper lessons regarding the capabilities of their forces and then facing subsequent defeats as a result, citing conflicts such as the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War as examples.
Most experts who commented on the matter believed that Russian forces would eventually prevail in Eastern Ukraine. Though others believed that the war is destined to become a stalemate and eventually a frozen conflict like the Korean War. A few speakers indicated that they did not believe that the Ukrainian government was acting independently and was under the direct control of NATO.
Culture Wars, Media and Communications, and the Global Information Space
The Meeting Russia proceedings also included an extensive discussion on Russian perceptions of Western media narratives surrounding Russia’s current foreign policy. Speakers held a variety of views on this topic, with some characterizing coverage of the war in Ukraine by Western media sources as wholly biased and anti-Russian. Other speakers decried Russia’s own domestic restrictions for journalists, stating that people living inside Russia were gaining a distorted view of the war in Ukraine through heavily restricted national news coverage. Needless to say, this was the most polarizing topic of the entire Meeting Russia 2022 proceedings.
Some speakers on this topic advanced the notion that the Russian media is presently freer than media in the West, as Russia’s media is not subject to “cancel culture,” nor is it said to be dominated by American social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These speakers believed that many journalists in Russia operate under a “colonial mindset” and have been unduly influenced by Western narratives and globalist neoliberal values.
These speakers called for Russia to develop a “total media sovereignty” free of Western biases, and for every country to develop its own social media ecosystems to shield themselves from Western dominance of their respective information spaces. Such an idea of a total media sovereignty mirrors current efforts by some authoritarian governments to Balkanize the internet and develop sovereign walled-off sections of cyberspace as an information control strategy.
Economic Sanctions and the Problem of Over-Compliance
A final theme of the proceedings was the West’s unprecedented regime of economic sanctions leveled on Russia, and individual Russian citizens, in reaction to the February 2022 Ukraine invasion. A number of speakers noted that the sanctions were having a noticeable effect on the Russian economy, but also observed that the Russian government has been able to take steps to lessen some of the economic damage. One expert believed that while Russia’s economic activity has notably declined because of the West’s sanction regime, Russia would again enjoy positive GDP growth starting in 2024.
There was agreement amongst speakers knowledgeable on the topic that it was unclear if and how sanctions against Russia would be lifted by the West, and that the sanctions regime will likely be a long-term issue for the Russian economy. One expert mentioned the problem of over-compliance, where some foreign companies curtail their business dealings with Russia over and above the legal requirements of the sanction regime. This was said to be done out of a fear of companies inadvertently failing to comply with Western sanctions and suffering severe repercussions as a result.
When compared to my experience participating in the 2018 iteration of the program, Meeting Russia 2022 represented a distinct shift in the program and a noticeable change in tone. While PICREADI, as always, acted as a friendly and thoughtful convenor of Meeting Russia, it was obvious that the program goals have markedly shifted alongside Russia’s foreign policy post-February 2022.
This year’s Meeting Russia program took on a more existential mood than when I compare it to my experience in 2018. But with the world emerging from the COIVD-19 pandemic, war between Russia and Ukraine, strategic tension and threats of nuclear conflict between Russia and NATO, and the threat of an oncoming global economic recession, this is unsurprising.
When writing a conclusion to pieces such as this, one always wants to end on a positive note. For example, I could end by touting the virtues of public diplomacy, international engagement, and people-to-people dialogue in resolving conflict. But such words would ring hollow. It is hard to see any space for programs such as Meeting Russia to have any real chance at reshaping Russia’s shattered relations with the West at present time.
 Though it should be noted that the the origins of PICREADI’s funding is in dispute. In the wake of the Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the United States imposed sanctions on PICREADI and its leadership team in July 2022, see: U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets the Kremlin’s Continued Malign Political Influence Operations in the U.S. and Globally,” July 29, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0899.
 The only mainstream Western media source covering PICREADI’s Meeting Russia program that I could locate is a 2016 article in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, see: Brittany Holom, Alyssa Haas, Yury Barmin, “U.S.-Russia relations are at a real low. Here’s the diplomacy that is working,” Washington Post, November 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/05/u-s-russia-relations-are-at-a-real-low-heres-the-diplomacy-that-is-working/.
 Chatham House, “Chatham House Rule,” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about-us/chatham-house-rule.
 PICREADI, “Meeting Russia – Day 1,” https://www.picreadi.com/meeting_russia_2022_day1?fbclid=IwAR3ndy3nRe6dNFafBP0Xh7Ile6RDZ_e5sbsVBPYuePHrClO4SVeQwi7qreM.
 PICREADI, “Meeting Russia – Day 2,” https://www.picreadi.com/meeting_russia_2022_day2?fbclid=IwAR3wRjEN2nIO6hJsLIiCA7GNUOheRxmBSPmbk3Ig_MKX0MNlem8gwaKxs-E.
 Jim O’Neill, “Building Better Global Economic BRICs,” Goldman Sachs, November 2001, https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/archive/building-better.html.