The Rhodes Forum in Rhodes, Greece, claims to simply be an annual gathering of analysts and policy-makers interested in dialog and conversation. Sponsored since the early 2000s by the Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC), the forum brings together self-styled “luminaries” from across the world.
But the DOC, based out of Berlin, has long been linked to pro-Kremlin messaging — not least because it’s overseen by chairman and co-founder Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2014. In addition to the Rhodes Forum, the DOC also oversees the Dialog of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC-RI), which, according to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, aimed to “become the headquarters of a worldwide network of Russian think tanks” in order to “make the Russian view of the world popular.” At its core, the paper continued, the DOC-RI was an “instrument of Moscow’s hybrid warfare” against the West.
For years, the DOC’s Rhodes Forum has fit firmly within this model. Politico has described the event as one that gathers “Kremlin sympathizers” in a single location. As the Free Russia Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to highlighting the Kremlin’s crimes, wrote in a recent report, the event is “a weeklong holiday in a sunny clime, underwritten by Russian oligarchic money, as well as a showcase for has-been statesmen from the West to commingle, reminisce, and consider their post-retirement plan.” The Free Russia Foundation adds that the Rhodes Forum “is nicknamed by Western intelligence professionals as a ‘KGB team-building’ exercise.”
Given the fact that Yakunin has been sanctioned directly by the U.S., as well as the widespread condemnation the DOC has received in recent years, the headliner for this year’s Rhodes Forum is surprising: James “Jamie” Rubin, a former State Department official during President Bill Clinton’s administration who now works at the Ballard Partners lobbying shop.
The DOC, which did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about the event, described Rubin as an “internationally renowned foreign affairs journalist, academic, and world-leading authority on U.S. diplomat, national security and foreign policy.” Indeed, Rubin’s credentials are impressive: He served as a spokesperson for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and he was also directly involved in negotiations surrounding the Kosovo crisis in the Balkans in the late 1990s.
He’s continued speaking out publicly in recent years regarding Russia’s malign influence in the region, saying Putin has “destroyed” modern geopolitical principles, such as respect for other countries’ borders.
Given Rubin’s outspoken opposition to Kremlin machinations, the decision from Yakunin’s DOC to tap Rubin as a keynote speaker is perhaps an odd one. Rubin, however, told ThinkProgress that he initially had no concerns about speaking at the conference — largely because he had no idea who Yakunin was.
As Rubin told ThinkProgress, “Who the hell is Yakunin?”
Putin’s sanctioned pals
The DOC on its website describes the Rhodes Forum, which has gathered in Greece every year since 2002, as the group’s “flagship public event,” and says that the multi-day affair provides a “pioneering spirit, inclusiveness, and moral resilience of its participants in their work to tackle the problems we face.”
However, the fact that the event is organized by the DOC means the event has received years of criticism, especially since Western countries like the U.S., Canada, and Australia began sanctioning Yakunin directly for his role in the Kremlin’s kleptocracy.
When it comes to the Rhodes Forum, Yakunin “is just really employing his KGB knowledge and money that he got,” said Ilya Zaslavskiy, head of research at the Free Russia Foundation, noting that the Rhodes Forum is simply an exercise in Yakunin getting access to Western figures he couldn’t otherwise connect with, all while burnishing his own reputation along the way.
The event fits within Yakunin’s broader designs of attempting to launder his image for Western audiences as a simple businessman who is only seeking global stability. As a 2017 investigation from Quartz uncovered, Yakunin and his family have become the quintessential example of “reputation laundering,” utilizing public relations firms to clean up their image for Western audiences unfamiliar with Yakunin’s decades-long links with Putin or his prior work in the KGB.
As ThinkProgress has previously reported, the source of Yakunin’s substantial wealth is unclear. A former KGB general and one-time head of Russian Railways, Yakunin has been close to Putin for decades. Well-known anti-corruption activists like Alexei Navalny have alleged that Yakunin used that relationship to accrue billions of dollars from Russian governmental coffers. During the 1990s, Yakunin and Putin co-founded the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, cited by experts on Russian corruption like Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy, as the beginning of the kleptocratic cabal that would eventually lead the Kremlin.
Yakunin has denied that any of his wealth is ill-gotten, and his spokesperson did not respond to ThinkProgress’s questions.
A Reuters investigation in 2014 found that Russian Railways appeared to be involved in possible money laundering under Yakunin. With the former KGB general as its head, the company had “paid billions of dollars to private contractors that disguise their ultimate owners and have little or no presence at their registered headquarters.” Navalny, the anti-corruption activist, wrote in 2016 that Yakunin’s family had “built a huge business empire” through “corruption and mismanagement,” accruing a network of wealth “worth billions of dollars.”
Navalny even uncovered in 2013 that Yakunin’s mansion had, among other things, a storage room devoted solely to fur coats.
But Yakunin isn’t simply a businessman looking to accrue wealth. He already has links to other groups based in the U.S., including the notoriously anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families (WCF), which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. Multiple media outlets, and even WCF promotional materials, have said Yakunin has sponsored the group, though a representative for Yakunin previously denied to ThinkProgress that Yakunin has funded the WCF.
Due to his clear links to Putin, and the ongoing allegations surrounding his wealth, the U.S. and Australia slapped sanctions on Yakunin shortly after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Canada also followed suit earlier this year, singling Yakunin out for sanctions.
All of which makes the DOC’s decision to host Rubin that much more surprising. When it comes to the Rhodes Forum, Zaslavskiy told ThinkProgress that Yakunin and the DOC would be interested not only in trying to present Rubin’s presence as something to legitimize the Rhodes Forum, but also something they could use to their own ends. “They will twist his words and present some favorable narrative,” Zaslavskiy said.
We are delighted to announce James Rubin as a keynote speaker at this year’s Rhodes Forum. His deep experience and direct involvement in US diplomacy and politics over recent decades will bring an invaluable perspectivehttps://t.co/vsttbnrarg
— DOC Research (@DOCResearchInst) June 26, 2019
In a conversation with ThinkProgress, Rubin said that he was likewise surprised they’d invited him. He told ThinkProgress that he’d been planning on charging the DOC a $15,000 speaking fee — but is now considering pulling out entirely.
“They think anytime they hurt the United States it’s good for them,” Rubin said about the Kremlin, “so I’m surprised they invited me… Let me assure you that if I go, all the things you’ve ever seen me say, I’d say there.”