DAVOS, Switzerland – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is the elephant in the Congress Center here at Davos. Foreign leaders are hotly debating what the President will be like, and what it will mean for them. There is trepidation. But also sufficient willingness to let Trump work his role.
Specifically, there is curiosity about a Trump tilt toward Russia, which would be a major geopolitical shift. One former world leader, referencing Trump's desire to somehow get through to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he too had had a few "moments of madness" thinking at one time that he could win President Vladimir Putin over. That leader, speaking off-the-record, urged caution, but added that you need to try your best to work with the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Emma Marcegaglia, Chairman of Italy's energy giant ENI, said Europeans would generally be pleased to see Russia come in from the cold if it meant they would be back on normal trading terms, as many countries have a long history and big deals with Moscow. She did throw an interesting twist into the debate.
"If Trump decided to have his most important interlocutor be Russia and not Europe, this will be a bad thing. This is possible. There is a strange situation in Europe where people are asking, 'is all this serious, or not?'"
The man sometimes called Trump's Valerie Jarett, Anthony Scaramucci, was asked why the President-elect seems so hot to trot for Putin, when Russia is hardly an economic superpower.
"My personal view is that there is one nation on the planet that can take out the United States in 35 minutes," he said. "So, whatever you think about [Russia's] economic power, it's the largest land mass nation, stretching between Europe and Asia. It has a different culture to Europe and Asia. They are a very proud people." Scaramucci went on to say that the new administration faced basically two choices: trying to find common ground with Moscow or sticking to the status quo in relations. The latter option, in Scaramucci's mind, is not so great for the world.
The head of Russia's Direct Investment Fund, Kirill Dmitriev, was also positive about bilateral relations going forward. He said, "We are quite optimistic about our communications with the Trump Administration. We believe they treat Russia with respect."
Hedge Fund Manager Bill Browder, the biggest foreign investor in Russia in the days after the end of the Soviet Union, has an entirely different take on dealing with the Kremlin. He claims hundreds of millions of tax dollars he paid to the Russian government were stolen by corrupt officials. Browder's lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was thrown in prison where he died in 2009 at the age of 37 after having allegedly been beaten and denied medical attention. No one has been punished for any of this.
Browder has managed to get 40 people he claims were involved in fraud and Magnitsky's murder sanctioned by Congress, under something called the Magnitsky Act. Their assets are frozen and they cannot travel to the U.S. Browder managed widen the net — the Global Magnitsky Act passed last month. It allows the U.S. to sanction fraudsters and human rights abusers anywhere in the world. Browder does not believe the pressure should be off Russia.
"If Donald Trump wants to lift sanctions, he is going to make a grave mistake, which will cost American lives in the end," Browder said. "It will give Putin free rein to start conflicts in other countries that we will be dragged into."
Browder doesn't think Putin wants to occupy these countries, but he does want to manipulate them "so he can control their financial flows, their law enforcement and their politics, so they become vassal states to Russia. He wants to widen the reign of his kleptocracy and he doesn't want all these righteous Westerners interfering."
But Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov warned the crowds at Davos that the world's big, intractable problems, such as international terrorism, cannot be solved without contribution from and collaboration with Russia.
And Anthony Scaramucci explained why it might be time for a less punitive approach to Russia. He said, "I don't know if you've noticed, but sanctions have had a positive political effect on President Putin. His popularity went up because Russians would eat snow in the winter in their bare feet to survive. That's their culture."
Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan, Italy. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox