Text size

SOCHI AND MOSCOW - Three and a half hours with Putin, three hours with Medvedev, and one bonus hour with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. That's what the members of the Valdai Discussion Club received from the Russian leadership over the weekend in Sochi, a Russian resort city sprawled along the shores of the Black Sea.

The forum of opinion-shapers, senior officials, researchers, diplomats and journalists convenes annually since 2004 to discuss Russian policy-related issues with the Kremlin heads.

This year's get-together received new and even dramatic overtones because of the power shift in Moscow, which left a unique, two-headed beast at the top. But above all, the international crisis created by the war in the Caucasus served to make this year's event particularly interesting.

Has a new Cold War era dawned? Will Ukraine be the next item on the Russians' list after Georgia? How will Russia react to the deployment of the American missile and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic? How will the rift between the two superpowers affect the Middle East and other parts of the world? And who really controls Moscow today? These were just some of the questions discussed in Sochi.

The first meeting took place at the estate of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch considered to be Russia's wealthiest man and owner of Rusal, an international aluminum industry giant. Putin, who had to part with the presidential Dacha after the power shift, chose the venue, which usually serves as a sanatorium for Rusal employees.

The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, presided over the discussion for more than three hours, introducing the participants to a charismatic leader capable of conveying warmth and reserve, menacing and charming gestures, challenging and defensive speech.

He intermittently inveighed against the West and implored it to understand Russia's position. He blushed with rage when speaking about some issues, only to induce his listeners to laugh out loud when joking about other matters.

The general message that emerged after he was done talking was that the Cold War era had ended. Unlike yesteryear, there are no ideological disputes between Russia and the West. Moscow possesses no imperialistic ambitions and if the West treats it as its equal, it will find a ready partner on all the issues currently on the table, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation.

Putin surprised his listeners when he drew parallels between enemy-surrounded Israel and Russia, which is being closed in by "the hostile West." He lauded U.S. President George W. Bush as being a man of "honor and integrity," jokingly adding that he had more appreciation for Bush than most Americans.

At the same time, he expressed bitter disappointment with Bush. When the attack on Georgia began, both leaders were in Beijing for the Olympic Games. Putin said he warned Bush about the "plot" being contrived against Russia, and Bush replied - according to Putin - that "no one wants war." But then the Americans, Putin complained, egged the Georgians on, leaving Russia no choice but to strike at the enemy.

Putin sought to present a view which his guests could arguably never have heard from the Western media: a world in which the West is the aggressor and Russia defends itself while demonstrating restraint. "Our forces stopped 15 kilometers from Tbilisi," he said. "We could have overrun it and taken control of Georgia in four hours, but we opted not to."

The U.S., by contrast, is doing the exact opposite, according to Putin. Let us drop the charade, he said. The missile system that the Americans are planning to deploy in Poland and the Czech Republic is aimed at Moscow, he said.

Maintaining good relations with the European Union is also a Russian goal, Puttin said, including the former Soviet states of eastern Europe. However, the deployment of the American missile system would necessitate Russia to immediately deploy missiles aimed at Poland and the Czech Republic.

Talk about the need for defense from dangerous countries like Iran is senseless, he said. Iran, Putin elaborated, does not possess the necessary technology to pose a threat to the West.

As for Iran's nuclear plan, Putin informed listeners that he has had occasion to talk at some length with the country's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, who preferred, according to Putin, to ignore the Russian position. During another address, Putin's foreign minister, Lavrov, said that according to the information that Moscow has received, Iran is cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Putin added that he attributes much importance to Russia's presence in the Middle East, and that Russia intends to make general use of Syria's naval facilities. Over the weekend, news agencies reported that the Russian authorities announced that renovation work is underway at the Syrian port Tartus, which is meant to serve as a permanent port for Russian vessels.

At the end of the meeting, some of the participants seemed exhausted. Putin, meanwhile, had about him the air of a man whose day had just begun.

In a conversation with Haaertz, Oleg Tsatsourine, an advisor to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, said that Russia "will not take any action that might alter the balance of power in the Middle East or compromise Russia's excellent relations with Israel."

The meeting with Medvedev took place the following day, in Moscow. In sharp contrast with the countryside villa, the meeting with the president was held at the luxurious Gum department store, inside a showroom that is a preferred venue for fashion shows.

As with Putin, the guests were not required to submit their questions in advance, and Medvedev replied at length to each and every inquiry. Medvedev seems younger than his 43 years. Brimming with self confidence, he seems well on the way to becoming another Putin.

Although his voice is softer and less assertive, the content of his replies was often tougher than what Putin had to say. For example, in describing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Medvedev launched a withering assault, condemning him as "somebody utterly unpredictable, a person totally burdened by pathological traits, a totally unbalanced person who takes narcotic drugs."

In replying to Haaretz's question on whether the follow-up conference to the Annapolis peace summit that the U.S. hosted last year constitutes a return to Russian involvement in the Middle East along similar lines as during the Soviet era, Medvedev said: "Unfortunately, Russia is perceived not only as the legal heiress of the USSR, but also as its ideological reincarnation. It is not. Russia has a completely different value system. When Russia offers its brokerage services in the Middle East, its sole intention is to assist with bringing peace that will benefit both Jews and Arabs."

The formal meeting ended unexpectedly after the president finished speaking, when he was mobbed by forum members who wanted to have their photographs taken with him and receive his autograph. The Cold War, it seems, has never been more bizarre.