The big Davos meet survived COVID-19, but will it recover from cutting ties with Russia?

The list of participants for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos has suddenly shrunk. The WEF has frozen all relations with Russian entities and sanctioned individuals: “Our full solidarity is with Ukraine’s people and all those who are suffering innocently from this totally unacceptable war,” reads a statement put out by Klaus Schwab, WEF’s founder, and Børge Brende, its president. With a board including Canadian deputy PM Chrystia Freeland, one of the most vocal advocates of the strongest sanctions against Russia, and Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the organization’s leadership had no choice.

But for Klaus Schwab, cutting ties with Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs around him must feel like a painful separation from old friends. Both Putin himself and his regime benefited enormously from the Forum, which they lavishly funded in return over the last twenty years.

Vladimir Putin’s voice in international affairs was “essential,” Klaus Schwab told the virtual WEF audience in January of last year as he introduced the Russian president. “How do you see the situation developing in the third decade of the 21st century, and what should be done to ensure that people everywhere find peace and prosperity?” he asked. “Mr. President, the world is waiting to hear from you.”

Before answering, Vladimir Putin reminded the audience that his relationship with Schwab stretched back to the early 1990s. The two men met most recently last summer, with the WEF’s founder once again stressing the importance of having a large Russian presence at the WEF’s annual conference. According to Politico, the close links between Russia and the WEF date back, in fact, to the fall of the Soviet Union, predating Putin’s accession to the presidency.


Forced to comply with US, EU, and Swiss sanctions, these links have now been severed. As a consequence, a number of Russian-registered participants are sanctioned and will be no-shows at the next annual meeting, planned for May: the list includes Andrey Kostin, president and chair of VTB Bank, Kirill Dmitriev of the Russian Direct Investment, Putin’s former chief of staff Sergey Ivanov, VTB Capital’s CEO Alexei Yakovitsky, and Alisher Usmanov of USM Holding (a resident of Switzerland).

Several WEF initiatives with a Russian footprint have also been dropped, such as the WEF’s Moscow Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the WEF Global Future Council on Russia, co-chaired by a former minister of economic development who is now an adviser to Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s condemnation and isolation may not, on their own, explain the WEF’s decision, described by Politico as “part reputation management, part sanctions.” The information site describes an intense pressure on Klaus Schwab and his team from the “Young Global Leaders,” who are “furious at WEF’s Russia ties.”

It is reported that the organization is already $50 million in the red due to the cancelation of its events during the pandemic. Some WEF insiders speculate that other Asian and Western regulars may decide to skip the next annual meeting of the Forum, which is seen by many as having “lost the plot,” and more part of the problem than the solution.

“Pro-Soviet Russia and the World Economic Forum rose together; each desperately wanted to be seen as a great power,” Politico concludes. “The deal was relatively simple at first: Putin endorsed WEF, the oligarchs funded it, and in turn the Forum helped launder their reputations. You can call it multi-stakeholderism, a transaction, or the ugly truth of globalization. But, like Schwab and Putin, it’s no longer the future.”

Two emails for comments sent to the WEF earlier this week by The G|O have remained unanswered.