By not going to the G8 summit, Vladimir Putin sends a message to his western critics
The Group of Eight summit on May 18-19 in the United States will mark the first time that Russia will not be represented by its head of state. The Kremlin said newly installed President Vladimir Putin is deputing his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Camp David because he himself is busy finalising the new government.
In 1999, ailing President Boris Yeltsin almost missed a G8 summit in Germany, sending instead then Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, but on the third day of the meeting Mr. Yeltsin did join the world leaders in Cologne.
The official explanation for downgrading Russia's representation at the current G8 could be read as a veiled message from Mr. Putin that Mr. Medvedev is not playing any important role in forming a cabinet that he will head and can therefore be dispatched to an unimportant meeting overseas. Sounds like a double slight to U.S. President Barack Obama.
The Kremlin duly insisted that no snub was meant, and this may well be true. Mr. Putin may just be responding to a message Mr. Obama sent to him through outgoing President Medvedev when the two met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Seoul in March.
Mr. Obama was accidentally picked up by a microphone as he was asking Mr. Medvedev to pass it on to Mr. Putin: “It's important for him to give me space… After my election I will have more flexibility” to strike deals over missile defence and other issues. Mr. Medvedev promised to “transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Mr. Putin's reply to Mr. Obama was: “No problem, I'll come when you are ready to do business, if you're still there then, that is.” Mr. Putin appears to be making the point that he has just been elected for a six-year term, whereas Mr. Obama may or may not win re-election. Mr. Putin's defiant gesture deals an especially painful blow to Mr. Obama because he had moved the summit from Chicago to Camp David to accommodate Mr. Putin, who, because of the missile defence dispute, had earlier refused to attend a NATO summit in Chicago, timed to coincide with the G8.
By dispatching Mr. Medvedev to the G8, Mr Putin may also be reminding Mr. Obama and other Western leaders that they placed their stake on Mr. Medvedev and wanted him to stay for a second term. Mr. Putin seems to be saying: “You like Medvedev more than me — very well, you can have him anytime for your talking shop gatherings.”
It probably gives Mr. Putin extra delight to shun the meeting of countries whose media and politicians lambasted him for suppression of freedoms and manipulation of elections and called for throwing out Russia from the G8. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the Russian parliamentary poll in December as “neither free nor fair,” and last week the State Department said the U.S. was “disturbed” by Russia's “police mistreatment” of peaceful protesters against Mr. Putin's return as President.
“You wanted to expel me from the G8?” Mr. Putin is telling the West. “Well, I'm expelling the G8 from my priorities.”
Experts said Mr. Putin, who hates rituals, may continue, to some extent, the arrangement he had with Mr. Medvedev when the latter was President. Mr. Medvedev represented Russia on the world stage, while Mr Putin stepped in when critical issues were discussed, such as missile defence, Iran or Syria. Moscow has long been arguing that the G8 is an outdated format that does not reflect global realities. A foreign policy decree Mr. Putin signed a day after assuming office ranked international organisations according to their importance for Russian diplomacy during his third term. In this list the G8 came after the BRICS and the Group of Twenty.
In declining to make the U.S. his first overseas destination Mr. Putin is clearly signalling that during his new term relations with Washington may not have the priority for the Kremlin they had during Mr. Medvedev's presidency unless the White House shows readiness for what Mr. Putin called “equal and mutually respectful partnership.” The much vaunted “reset” in relations between the two countries has failed to bring the dividends Moscow hoped for — access to advanced technologies and guarantees that the U.S. missile shield would not undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent.
In line with the Kremlin's traditional prioritising of relations with the former Soviet states, Mr. Putin is likely to pay his first visit abroad either to Belarus, Russia's closest ally.
The China angle
The far more intriguing question was which country Mr. Putin would pick for his first visit outside the former Soviet Union. Now that he has skipped the G8, it will be China, which is hosting a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on June 6-7. To emphasise the importance Russia attaches to relations with Beijing, Mr. Putin has also scheduled his state visit to China to precede the SCO meet.
Mr. Putin's choice of the SCO over G8 and China over the U.S. is rich in symbolism. The Russian leader is sending a message to Washington: Russia has been trying hard to balance its relations with the West and the East, but if you continue to ignore our concerns and interests and to treat me as a democracy-basher, you'll push me to tip this balance in China's favour at your own peril.