SPIEF 2023 – Highlights & Analysis

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The St.Petersburg International Economic Forum has just taken place – Russia’s major business and policy forum. Ignored by the West, it contains the most recent positions of Russian global trade, and foreign policy, including with both Asia and the West. We provide analysis.

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

The 2023 SPIEF has just finished, providing a snapshot into Russian business investment, foreign trade and investment policy and reactions to the West’s position concerning the Ukraine conflict. Featuring geopolitical statements and business investment details, and a plenary session speech delivered by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, I cover the topics raised during SPIEF in categories as follows:

SPIEF 2023: Brief Statistics

SPIEF 2023 was attended by 17,000 participants (both physical and online) including 150 companies from 25 ‘unfriendly’ countries that have placed significant sanctions on Russia. The largest delegations were from the UAE, (over 500 participants) with other significant attendees being from the United States (200), China (147), and India (58). Roscongress, the organisers, stated that about 900 investment agreements worth about ₽4 trillion (US$47.6 billion) had been signed. 43 agreements were signed between Russian and foreign businesses, including deals involving companies from Italy and Spain.

Russian Economy

The Russian economy has continued to grow, with GDP rising to 3.3% in April of this year. Positive dynamics were also projected for the future, with Russia’s overall economic growth expected to reach 2% this year. That, while small, is double the projected US growth, while the EU has now technically entered recession. The government will continue working to reduce inflation, which at 2.2% is already close to a historic low. This figure is also significantly lower than in many Western countries. Unemployment in Russia is also at an all-time low of 3.3%.

The Russian government has apparently managed to prevent a destabilization of prices despite the Western sanctions pressure, thanks to its use of budget mechanisms and monetary instruments.

Russian lenders have invested actively, while their capital bases have successfully passed strength tests. In 2022, lending to businesses grew 14.3%, while consumer lending increased 9.5%. Mortgage loan growth has also been brisk. Reflecting on this, Russian President Putin stated during SPIEF that “We will continue building up our macroeconomic policy based on the actual situation and bearing the inflation target in mind – just as we did last year and during the pandemic, when demand dropped in the economy.”

Putin stated that “Our overall exports last year reached US$592 billion in value, with non-raw material, non-energy exports accounting for nearly one third of this – US$188 billion.” The Russian economy is gradually shifting away from energy.

Putin said that the non-energy sector “means 6.4 million jobs and ₽2.2 trillion (over US$26 billion) in fiscal tax revenues to our national consolidated budget.”

Western exodus prompted Russian growth

Foreign companies that left Russia due to Western sanctions are swiftly being replaced by local ones, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Their exit opened up ₽2 trillion (US$23.8 billion) worth of niche markets. The exodus of multinationals is believed to have been of benefit, as it has encouraged domestic businesses to grow and expand.

Putin also noted that “Many foreign brands have long been selling products that are fully produced at our facilities (such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola amongst many others). In fact, these are Russian goods, only with foreign logos. So, their production did not stop with the departure of the brand owners. Only the logo changed. The profits from these businesses now remain in our country.”

As a case in point, all 900 McDonalds restaurants were rebranded as ‘Tasty Dot” with all reopening under the new brand. But the profits and assets now remain in Russia as opposed to being repatriated to the United States. In 2020, before the conflict, McDonalds turnover in Russia had reached US$1.3 billion, accounting for 9% of total global sales. It is now 100% a Russian business.

Infrastructure development

In terms of domestic infrastructure and regional connectivity with Asia, the Russian government stated it will continue constructing and upgrading infrastructure, including roadways and railways, overpasses, and bridges. Expanding the capacities of seaports and border checkpoints will also be at the top of the agenda. Russia will pay particular attention to the development of the International North-South Transport Corridor and plans to double export traffic along the route.

The INSTC is a 7,200km multi-mode transit system that will connect ship, rail, and road routes for moving cargo between Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, India, South Asia.

The last remaining bottleneck between Russia and Iran’s section of the INSTC is being completed and should be operational by the year end. That will greatly enhance freight between Russia, the Caspian Sea and via Iran to ports in the Persian Gulf, with connectivity throughout the Middle East, East Africa, India and the rest of South Asia. INSTC freight growth is expected to double by 2025 and by 2030 triple the volume of Russian exports.

Russian Foreign Policy

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, stated that Russia plays a leading role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Greater Eurasian Partnership, as well as the expanding BRICS group. “Today, there is an understanding that growth processes need to be regionalized and this vision prevails,” Lavrov said. “All the countries of this vast Eurasian continent should use their natural advantages to develop mutually beneficial logistic, financial, and transport chains.”

Lavrov added that Russia would “leave all doors open” for partnership with European countries who realize that their interests are better served by cooperation with Russia rather than by playing Washington’s “ideological and geopolitical games.”

“The world will be different,” Lavrov stated, “The processes we see unfolding today were begun by the West’s response to Russia’s Special Military Operation, while we have accepted the challenge that they have presented to us. These processes clearly show that autonomy and independence of any structures on the global arena that are related to the West are becoming the main and detrimental trend today. We won’t be prepared to let security guarantees be based on more pledges and promises or even documents the West may offer us,” he said. “We must guarantee our national security on our own.”

“We fully understand that we can only rely on ourselves and build relations only with countries open to an equal and mutually beneficial partnership,” Lavrov continued. “This is not what we see in the West these days.”

Lastly, Lavrov declared the era in which the US and its allies control the institutions of globalization – primarily development banks and multilateral organizations – will come to a close.

US Dollar and Euro Usage

Russian Deputy Minister of Economic Development Vladimir Ilyichev stated that due to Western sanctions, Russia has increased its trade with its ‘friendly’ partners. That has introduced a growing use of national currencies in cross-border settlements, including the energy trade. This means that US dollar reserves of the world’s major economies are shrinking, as are trade settlements using the dollar, while numerous nations are pitching projects to create new reserve currencies. The share of the US dollar and euro in Russia’s settlements slumped from 90% in early 2022 to less than 50% by the end of the year and will keep falling.

Depending on various scenarios, the Russian Finance Ministry expects the share of the dollar and euro to diminish to 10-15% by the end of 2023, Ilyichev said. He noted that the share of the ruble in settlements between countries in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) had reached 75% in 2023.

Outside the EAEU and former Soviet countries, China and the Arab states areamong those who are also increasingly shifting away from the US dollar. We’ve reached substantial volumes of settlements in rupees with India.” Ilyichev noted.

A gloomy prediction for the dollar was made, with Ilyichev stating that “The share of settlements in the dollar is declining. The share of settlements in the Chinese yuan is growing. Oil producers in the leading Arab countries are now saying that they are ready to pay for oil in yuan… If this trend gains momentum and other oil and gas exchanges appear where settlements are not made in dollars, then this is the beginning of the end for this currency in terms of global usage.”

The Euro may also face significant problems. Brussels wants to use interest earned on frozen Russian financial assets to finance Ukraine reconstruction. However, the European Central Bank has warned that doing so would likely lead to a further exodus of international usage of the Euro as other trade partners would be insecure in seeing the EU sending money belonging to the Russian taxpayers to anywhere other than its legal owners. Should Brussels defy this advice, the Euro was highly likely to face extreme pressures as its credibility would be called into question.

Chinese RMB Usage In Russian Trade

The Russian Central Bank stated on Friday (June 16) that the share of the Chinese RMB Yuan in Russian exports and imports saw another surge in April, increasing by 23% in Russian exports, and 31% in Russian imports respectively.

This is on top of existing increases in March, with the RMB Yuan usage increasing that month at 18% (exports) and 27% (imports). In terms of value, monthly export revenue in Chinese RMB Yuan rose from US$6.9 billion to US$7.2 billion, while import payments saw an increase from US$7.7 billion to US$7.9 billion, the Central Bank added. At current growth rates it could be expected that Chinese RMB Yuan total usage in Russian import and export trade could hit close to US$200 billion for the year.

Russia-European Union Trade

Ruslan Davydov, acting head of Russia’s Federal Customs Service, said that trade turnover between Russia and the European Union has continued to fall amid Western sanctions on Moscow, saying that “The EU has lost its status as Russia’s key trading partner, its share in the country’s foreign trade has dropped from 38% in 2020 to 17.6% today, and is continuing to fall”.

Official statistics show that in 2020 the EU was Russia’s leading trade partner, accounting for 37.3% of the country’s total trade in goods. Over 36% of Russia’s imports came from the EU and 37.9% of its exports went to the 27-nation bloc. The total value in goods traded between Russia and the EU had amounted to €257.5 billion (US$279 billion) in 2021, according to European Commission data. The EU’s imports were worth €158.5 billion and were dominated by fuel and mining products, particularly mineral fuels, wood, iron, steel, and fertilizers.

Meanwhile, last summer the EU exported 43% fewer goods to Russia versus the same period a year ago. However, that 43% has largely instead continued to make its way to Russia via significant increases in EU trade with Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkiye, amongst several other countries where middle-men have taken up the EU-Russia trade opportunity. While the trade sanctions have had a political result in that direct EU-Russia trade has decreased, it has had limited impact on the EU manufactured goods available in Russia.

Meanwhile, China exported 23% more goods to Russia last year versus 2021, according to a report by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Russia’s customs service reported a record surplus in Russia’s foreign trade in 2022, noting that China was the country’s top trading partner, followed by Türkiye.

China, India, ASEAN and Asian Trade Developments

According to official figures, bilateral trade between China and Russia rose by over 34% year-on-year in 2022 – to a record high of US$190 billion. Moscow and Beijing have set a new trade goal of US$300 billion by 2030. To put that into context, that is roughly 3 times more than the EU’s bilateral trade with Japan.

The China-Russia trade is especially prevalent in Russia’s Far Eastern Primorsky Region. That accounted for over 57% of Primorsky’s total foreign trade turnover. China’s share in exports to the region was 47% last year, while imports amounted to 62%. Such growth was largely attributable to cooperation between Primorsky Region and the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, where Russian consumer products especially have become a big hit.

Russia and Iran are at the final stages of a free trade agreement – one that “embraces all our trade” and is due to be signed later this year. The deal is expected to be a boom for Russian companies, as they would be exempted from Iran’s notoriously high export duties. Similar free trade agreements are being negotiated with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Indonesia and are projected to come into force possibly from 2024. The UAE President, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is continuing discussions in St.Petersburg concerning the development of bilateral relations and current international issues.

In terms of India, Ramnik Kohli, of the Indian Business Council for Cooperation, said that Russia and India should focus more on support of small and medium sized enterprises (SME) that could become the new driving force for further economic growth between the countries. He said that India and Russia have “huge potential” for boosting trade ties in such areas as pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and component production, the processed food products sector, and retail.

The countries have a long history of cooperation in a range of sectors from trade in commodities including oil and gas, to weapons systems, but the SME sector has so far been “totally ignored,” Kohli noted.

In India, the SME share of its economy is expected to contribute US$2 trillion by 2030. Kohli said that the “great relationship” between Moscow and New Delhi could be “converted into business” if the governments put more emphasis on measures to support entrepreneurs. “We should have a free trade agreement between our countries, secondly we have to sign up a protection document to protect the investments in both countries,” he said. India is currently negotiating an FTA with the EAEU.

The trade and economic partnership between Russia and India has taken off in the face of Western sanctions. In 2022, Russia became one of India’s top five trading partners for the first time. Bilateral trade hit a record US$39.8 billion for the 2022-23 Indian fiscal year.

Among other steps, Kohli proposed to bilaterally adopt each other’s payment systems. “The Mir payment system of Russia should be accepted in India and similarly the UPI payment system of India should be accepted in Russia – this will give a huge push to business and trade,” he stated.
The move would allow boosting settlements in national currencies as part of the de-dollarization process that started last year, he noted, adding that roughly 18 countries are accepting the Indian rupee including Russia.

A Russia-ASEAN summit also took place, which the Russian President also took part in, together with the heads of official ASEAN delegations, several at Ministerial level. This discussed the deepening of cooperation in trade, investment and humanitarian spheres, the strengthening of ties between ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as current international and regional issues. ASEAN as a bloc are permanent attending guests of the SCO, while Cambodia and Myanmar are dialogue partners. Vietnam meanwhile has a Free Trade Agreement with Russia via the EAEU while Cambodia and several other ASEAN members, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are also negotiating similar trade deals.

After the plenary session, the participants adopted a Joint Statement of the 3rd Russian-ASEAN summit on their developing strategic partnership, in addition to a memorandum of understanding between ASEAN and the EAEU on economic cooperation. The meeting was important on both sides, Russia as it needs to find new markets after having been cut off from the West, and ASEAN as it needs access to Russia’s inexpensive energy supplies to maintain its growth. ASEAN’s total GDP hit US$3.3 trillion in 2021, making up 3.5% of global GDP, with growth expected at 5.2% this year. Its energy needs are growing by an estimated 3.5% per annum. Current Russia-ASEAN trade is running at about US$20 billion, meaning there is significant space for growth.

In Central Asia, Russia’s trade volumes hit US$41 billion in 2022, showing an increase of 20%.

Black Sea Grain Agreement

Russia has indicated it is expecting to exit the Black Sea grain agreement, under which grain from Ukraine has safe passage to global markets in a deal brokered between Moscow, Kiev, Brussels, Ankara, and the United Nations. The agreement expires on July 17th and has previously been extended several times since July 2022. Russia claims that despite the West promising that the deal would help African nations, only 3.1% of the shipments of Ukrainian grain have ended up in Africa, with 38.9% of them going to the EU. Brussels has claimed that it never restricted sending grain to Africa, but Moscow has argued that it was unable to make supplies to African nations due to shipping, insurance, and brokerage sanctions. Russia has also claimed that Ukraine used the agreed supply chain corridors as a cover to launch military drone attacks.

A significant African delegation has been in St. Petersburg to meet with President Putin to uncover ways to resolve the issue (see below) and are meeting at the Konstantinovsky Palace in Strelna.

In terms of Russia’s own wheat production, President Putin stated that “I would like to note that supplies of agricultural products have reached a new high of more than US$41 billion. Since 2016, Russia has been the world’s largest wheat exporter. We believe that this year, we will break our existing record in terms of wheat exports.”

Putin added that Russia would make active efforts to ensure global food security by helping countries experiencing food shortages, including in Africa.

Russia-Africa Peace Plan and Trade

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a delegation of African leaders in St. Petersburg on Saturday (June 17). The group travelled to Russia a day after visiting Ukraine and meeting President Vladimir Zelensky, promoting their 10-point peace roadmap designed to end the conflict between Kiev and Moscow. Zelensky has immediately rejected the African plans. He had also rejected an earlier Chinese plan.

The African delegation comprised South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Comoros President Othman Ghazali, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, and senior officials from the Republic of Congo and Uganda.

The delegation presented President Putin with a 10-point peace roadmap, which broadly outlines the steps needed to end the hostilities between Moscow and Kiev. The document affirms that the African leaders welcome other peace initiatives from third parties, and states that the conflict “cannot go on forever,” and that all differences should be settled through negotiations.

The roadmap says African nations respect the sovereignty of both Russia and Ukraine as enshrined in the UN Charter; and urges the two countries to “de-escalate.” In addition, the document calls for all restrictions on trade in grain and other goods to be lifted, (see Black Sea Grain Agreement above) while those affected by the conflict should be given humanitarian support. The roadmap urges the two parties to release all prisoners of war, and to return temporarily displaced persons, including children, to their homes.

In response to the grain issue, Putin shared with the Africans documents signed by Ukraine and the EU concerning safe passage of grain to Africa, explaining it was agreed upon and maintained by Russia to alleviate food supply issues for less-secure nations. However, the deal did not work exactly as designed, with the supplies flowing out of Ukraine went to the West instead of Africa. He stated “As of June 15 this year, 31.7 million tons of agricultural produce were exported from Ukrainian ports, while 976,000 tons – or 3.1% – were sent to African countries. Most of the rest went to the EU.” The Russian and African delegations remain in St. Petersburg trying to work out how a Russia-Africa bilateral grain agreement can be worked out with the UN and important component issues such as shipping insurance can be organised.

As an aside, 120 members of the African delegation, including journalists, were detained at Poland’s Warsaw airport for 24 hours on suspicions of weapons smuggling, meaning they had to stay on board the aircraft and missed scheduled meetings. The South African President Ramaphosa was allowed to depart separately – yet minus his security detail. Diplomatic complaints from the African counties concerned have been lodged with Warsaw and the UN.

Annexed Territories

Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, annexed as part of Russia last September from Ukraine, each had their own stands at SPIEF selling investment opportunities into their respective regions. They are looking for reconstruction finance following their respective conflicts with Kiev that originally began in 2014. Now the regions are considered safe enough to redevelop.

Maksim Reshetnikov, Russia’s Minister of Economic Development, stated that Russia is currently actively integrating the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, along with the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions into Russia’s economic environment. The government announced in January that it expected to fully integrate the new regions by 2030, but this will not be easy due to the limitations imposed by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Reshetnikov said that tourism, science, and agriculture are economic sectors that will be the driving force behind the development of these new Russian regions. Mostly Russian-speaking, Kiev over the years had discouraged national investment into these areas due to their pro-Russian stance, as had occurred with Crimea. Illustrating this, Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s governor stated that over the past nine years (since annexation in 2014) Crimea’s economic output has grown nearly four-fold, while the region has shown faster growth rates than the Russian average.

Among the support measures currently being developed by the government are a pan-Russian support system for small businesses that would give the local companies every tool they need to succeed, such as micro-finance institutions that can issue loans from the federal budget, and a network of insurance organizations that can help small and medium-sized businesses receive bank loans, according to the minister.

Russia plans to invest nearly US$5 billion in the new regions this year. The estimated output of the new regions will stand at about US$24 billion this year, or 1.25% of Russia’s GDP, according to projections by the Economic Development Ministry.

Ukraine Conflict & Proposed ‘Sanitized Zone’

Dmitri Medvedev, the Deputy Chair of Russia’s Security Council, stated that the conflict in Ukraine would continue for as long as negotiations concerning NATO membership for the country were taking place. Broadly this means that there will be no peace until NATO drops the potential for Ukraine to join. However, he also stated that a Ukraine ‘buffer’ zone could be established reaching as far as Lviv, near the Ukrainian border with Poland to isolate the eastern flank of NATO away from Russia’s borders.

In terms of what Russia is now called a ‘sanitized zone’ and where the borders of this would be, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that no decision had yet been taken. He said “The scale of a ‘sanitary zone’ in Ukraine will depend on the range of the Ukrainian or NATO arms, from which the Russian territory should be protected. This depends on what types of arms Ukraine has. The higher the combat characteristics of arms in Ukraine are, the farther this distance should be,” he said. “The main goal is clear: to make sure they do not reach the Russian citizens with those arms.”

President Putin gave some clarification stating that Moscow would consider the issue of creating a ‘sanitary zone’ on Ukraine’s soil should the shelling of Russian regions continue. In the event of Russia’s surrounding areas being attacked Moscow would consider the possibility of creating a ‘sanitary zone’ on Ukrainian territory. The concern is that Moscow would use low-level nukes to artificially create such a zone and render any ‘sanitary zone’ a de facto wasteland.

Both Russia’s President and Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, also ruled out relying on any external agreements concerning Russia’s future security, saying that instead of making agreements with the West, Russia would now be solely responsible for its own security. This is partially a reference to the Minsk accords signed in 2014 between Russia, Ukraine and the EU which were supposed to guarantee peace in the Donbass region. EU politicians, including Angela Merkel, have subsequently admitted they were instead a ruse to allow Ukraine to rearm rather than to solve the issue, and that they had deliberately mislead Moscow.


It is clear that beyond the EU and Ukraine, the West is becoming increasingly myopic about what is happening in Russia, or at least in how the circumstances are being described. This creates dangers in expectations of the West’s general public, as the media information being disseminated does not match up with what is occurring. With the United States and several EU countries facing national elections next year, changes in government makeup may usher in new opinions within the coming 12-18 months.

Regardless, Russia does appear to have navigated and is continuing to navigate its way around Western sanctions. Products barred from direct EU export to Russia are instead being redirected via third countries. There is nothing one cannot buy in Russian supermarkets today that was originally available pre-sanctions.

In terms of the geopolitical landscape, Russia has made good progress in terms of trade in re-configuring its trade east. This is a rapidly accelerating process, with opportunities throughout the region. China is re-positioning itself not just as a consumer market for Russian energy and other products; but is actively increasing its supply chain routes to better accommodate Russian trade with ASEAN. This is especially true of Vietnam, which already has a FTA with Russia. Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia to the south are all poised to benefit. China stands to make transit income from these routes.

The Ukraine news is less encouraging. While the situation, depending upon one’s media source, can best be described as fluid, the Ukrainian President’s increasingly untenable demands for a complete Russian withdrawal as conditional for any dialogue with Moscow, appears less than based on practical reality than ever before. Such attitudes also fall into Moscow’s hands as a partial win, as an on-going conflict nullify anyway Ukraine’s ability to join NATO. No country can be admitted that is currently engaged in conflict as under NATO’s charter the ‘One equals All’ clause would mean NATO would immediately be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia. At present, NATO is backing off, meaning Zelensky can only be the loser here as a prolonged conflict only assists Russia.

The current ‘Ukrainian offensive’ also appears unlikely to gain significant territory with a minimum 200km to go, and in some areas over 300km to reach Crimea under what would be increasingly violent circumstances. Current territorial gains after 2-4 weeks of the offensive have been measured in just 2km as a maximum to date. At this rate the Ukrainian military would not reach their stated 2023 goals until 2025 at best. Stories of meaningful Ukrainian gains are well reported in Western media, yet remain wide of the objective. They also do not factor in the approaching winter – five months away. By this time, the Ukrainian military may well have been decimated in terms of Ukrainian deaths. Any replacements could only come from mercenaries or NATO itself.

There are three conclusions therefore that can be drawn. One, Western sanctions are not having any major effect on Russia. Politicians talk of a ‘longer end game’ and ‘time to take effect’ but this was also the stated case twelve months ago. The Russian economy is doing better than the West’s on two counts – GDP growth and inflation. No-one predicted that in March 2022.

Two, trade opportunities can be found all points east and south of the Russian Urals within the Middle East, Central Asia, China, India and South Asia as well as in North and East Africa. These are viable and can be expected to grow.

Three; concerning the conflict, Russia has the upper hand and is likely to hold onto it. Any major impact of the Ukrainian offensive appears increasingly unlikely. As NATO membership for Ukraine cannot take place with the country remaining embroiled with Russia and a President unwilling to concede, the conflict will continue with no end in sight. This means Zelensky is fast running out of options. Flatly turning down African and Chinese peace proposals – with another shortly to be delivered from the Arab States – will be seen as the mark of a man seemingly divorced from reality.

With Ukraine’s entire military – active and reservists at about 450,000 at the beginning on 2022, and an estimated 124,500 to 131,000 total casualties thus far, there will come a point where the Ukrainian military reaches unsustainability. Russia meanwhile can still count on what would an unpopular, but achievable second call up of a further 2 million reservists. Moscow has also said it is prepared to sit down with Kiev to discuss solutions.

More worrying is the proposed ‘Sanitized Zone’. Details of how that could be achieved remain alarming. It is for all these reasons that the West’s ignoring of SPIEF – and other Russian business, trade and policy events – is extremely unwise. Summarizing the 2023 SPIEF therefore becomes fairly simple: To the East lies Opportunity. But to the West, Disaster.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He can be contacted at asia@dezshira.com

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