First of all, I think that while there is now no debate that chemical weapons (sarin) were used, there is still no international consensus on whether they were used by elements of the Syrian regime, elements of the Syrian opposition, or both. Previous U.N. findings have leaned toward the latter, but there has been no finding with respect to this latest incident, and intelligence professionals in many Western governments are divided on the matter, as are most journalists from the region.
Russia's stature has been elevated simply because it was able to prevent a further, unpredictable escalation of the conflict. (In earlier remarks to us, Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, memorably referred to "this crazy, crazy, crazy world" we all now live in.)
Jesus' injunction -- "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9) -- seems to have struck a chord with Russia's political leaders and Putin in particular, and their efforts seem to be much appreciated around the globe.
Did Putin talk about the Syrian crisis during the conference?
Yes, he did, though the previous day we also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who brought us up to speed about the latest developments in his negotiation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
If I were to summarize the gist of both Lavrov's and Putin's remarks, it is to remind us all that we are only at the beginning of a long process, and that if we want that process to succeed, all sides will have to make a good-faith effort to bring the warring parties to the table. Russia has succeeded in doing so with the Syrian government, and the United States now has to apply itself equally in bringing the Syrian opposition under control, especially if they too possess chemical weapons.
Is America's role as a super power diminishing?
That question came up often at the conference, but oddly not from the Russian participants. I would say that it was voiced mainly by the Chinese participants, who included several leading academics and journalists. But while the Chinese and some other Asian participants saw China's power as rising, they also expressed uncertainty about how it should best be used. As one participant put it, the United States has relinquished its global dominance to China quite suddenly, and China is not entirely sure what to do with its newly found status.
Putin, for his part, in his question-and-answer session, took pains to point out that the United States remains the world's leading power. This, he said, places a special responsibility on it to act responsibly, and solely within the context of established international law.
Russia seems to be a country in flux, politically and culturally. Do you see any big political or cultural movements ahead that would bring a colossal change in the government?
Actually, I see Russia as politically and economically more stable than ever. As a result, there is now an opportunity to move beyond daily survival and to look to its cultural underpinnings, to address the generational divide, that remains quite visible, between those who are nostalgic about the security and sense of purpose that they all shared in Soviet times, and those who have never had that, and are now searching for a post-Soviet common identity.
I do not anticipate any tremendous changes, though I would expect that, if the prospective Eurasian Union initiative linking Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were to flourish, it could become a powerful integrative force in the heartland of Eurasia.
The Russian government mistreats gays and lesbians. How strong is the protest movement to stop government crackdowns?
This is not quite correct. During his question-and-answer session Putin addressed a question from the audience regarding the rights of homosexuals and pointed out that, unlike many other countries (and about half of American states until 2003), since 1993 in Russia homosexuality is not illegal, homosexual acts are not illegal, and homosexuals cannot legally be discriminated against.
The legislation that was passed recently by the Russian parliament is quite specific. It prohibits the advertisement (in Russian "propaganda") of a homosexual lifestyle among minors. In other words, as I understand it, it applies first and foremost to schools and other places where underage children would be the objects of such efforts. That is all.
Having said that, it is also clear that Russian society is notably less liberal on public displays of sexuality than some other Western societies, on a par I would say with the more socially conservative regions of the United States or southern Europe.