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Analysis & Opinion
18.05.12 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Putin Snubs The G8 Summit In Washington
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Dick Krickus, Dale Herspring, Edward Lozansky, Ira Straus, Alexandre Strokanov

Russia's new old President Vladimir Putin abruptly cancelled plans to attend this year's G8 summit at Camp David, Maryland, on May 18. Putin informed U.S. President Barack Obama in a telephone conversation last week that he was too busy at home forming Russia's next government, and that he was sending as a stand-in his newly confirmed prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, Barack Obama's co-author of the U.S.-Russian “reset.” What does Putin's standing up Obama and the G8 really mean, and what message does it send about Putin's intentions as president? Will sending Medvedev as his envoy enhance Medvedev's international standing?

Observers questioned the official explanation behind Putin's demarche: he knew he would be dealing with forming the new government right after his inauguration, while the G8 summit had already been moved to Camp David from Chicago in order not to embarrass Putin with the NATO summit. Putin and Medvedev have been discussing the structure and the composition of the new government ever since they announced their “castling” in 2011 and intensified these discussions right after the presidential election last March.

Furthermore, dispatching Medvedev, the newly confirmed prime minister, to Washington while Putin is busy forming Medvedev's government amounts to international humiliation for Medvedev, who is exposed as simply an errands boy for Putin with no authority even over his own cabinet. This makes Medvedev and Russia the subjects of international ridicule. Members of the G8 are represented at the G8 summits by their top political leaders with full authority to make strategic decisions, which is clearly not the case with Medvedev.

Observers also noted that Putin was perhaps irritated by the U.S. criticism, actually quite mild and balanced, of the harsh police tactics against the anti-Putin protesters in Moscow. He might have wanted to avoid any additional criticism of his regime directly from the G8 leaders.

Gleb Pavlovsky, of the Fund for Effective Politics, believes that Putin was skeptical of the possibility of getting any substantive deliverables from the summit, whishing to avoid another round of stalemated conversations on missile defense, while also underscoring the larger importance he attaches to Russia's internal affairs over symbolic meetings with international leaders. A Russian government source told Kommersant that Putin's refusal to go to the United States is a signal that Moscow has had enough of the U.S. intransigence on missile defense, its criticism of Russian democracy and its visa-ban lists against Russian officials (the Magnitsky Act).

Pavlovsky further argues that by sending Medvedev to G8 as his stand-in, Putin may be signaling that as prime minister, Medvedev will have expanded functions and responsibilities, with an equal role on foreign policy – an arrangement that is closer to a vice-presidential status in the U.S. political system.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Foreign Affairs Magazine, believes that Putin seeks to preserve the “tandem arrangement” in foreign policy, where Medvedev would perform as Putin's special and most trusted envoy to top foreign leaders with whom a jovial Medvedev finds it easier to establish good rapport. Such an arrangement might mean a continued central role for Medvedev in the U.S.-Russian relationship, where he could remain Russia's top negotiator and a trusting partner for both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, assuming they get reelected in the fall.

Yet others noted that with Putin's refusal to go to Washington on his first foreign tour as president, his first major foreign visit will be to China in mid-June, which may be a signal of the Kremlin's shifting foreign policy priorities toward a closer partnership with China and an informal alliance with Beijing against Washington.

What does Putin's standing up Obama and the G8 really mean, and what message does it send about Putin's intentions as president? Is it really about his pique over U.S. criticism of Russian democracy, or is it a more strategic message of Russia's geopolitical realignment toward China? Will sending Medvedev as his envoy enhance Medvedev's international standing? Could it fool the G8 leaders into thinking that Medvedev will have an equal role with Putin on foreign policy, or will it further erode Medvedev's standing and make him an object of ridicule, with Putin signaling that Medvedev has little say over his own cabinet? Is it at all viable to position Medvedev as Russia's vice president on foreign affairs with no constitutional base for such a role?

Dale Herspring, Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University

While I cannot rule out the various factors – both internal and external – mentioned in the introduction, I think something else is involved. Senior generals in Russia (or the United States) do not speak out and semi-threaten the other side without having what they say carefully vetted at the top. Makarkov's comments have been sensationalized a bit too much in the West.

Nevertheless, this is a way for Putin to endorse Makarov's hard language (without sounding bellicose). "Look Obama, you need to understand that I am very serious about the missile defense program. If you don't show more flexibility, it will undercut our relations – period.”

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Chair of Social Science Department,

Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College,

Lyndonville, VT

In my opinion, there were several factors that contributed to the decision to send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead of Vladimir Putin to the G8 meeting at Camp David. It certainly is a well thought-out decision.

First of all, it is much more logical if Putin makes his first official visit to Belarus or Kazakhstan. This will further emphasize the focus of his foreign policy, one of main goals of which is to build the Eurasian Union.

Second, it might mean that Putin places much more significance on the upcoming G20 meeting and looks skeptically at the G8 club, whose prime may have already passed. Considering the unhealthy and in many ways unpredictable situation in the European economy and the growing significance of such countries as China, India and Brazil that are not represented at the G8, it makes more sense to participate in the G20 meeting.

Third, at this point there is no pressing necessity for Putin to meet with Barack Obama personally. Obama still needs to prove in November 2012 that he is going to continue to lead the United States and that his “reset” with Russia will continue into next year. It might happen, but maybe not. Will meeting with Putin add anything to his chances of being reelected? I doubt it. It is in the interest of both Putin and Obama to postpone the establishment of their direct relations to next year, when it becomes clear who will occupy the White House and what attitudes toward Russia will prevail among American power holders.

Fourth, I agree with Fyodor Lukyanov that Putin seeks to preserve the “tandem arrangement” in foreign policy. Medvedev certainly will not have an equal role with Putin on foreign policy, but the role of the Russian prime minister will be more visible and important than it was in the previous years before 2008.

Finally, I seriously doubt there is any connection between this decision and U.S. criticism of Russian democracy, or the recent street actions of some marginal Russian politicians and young people infatuated with them.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russian in NATO, Washington, DC

Putin did the West a favor by encouraging the G8 to be moved out of Chicago. He did it another favor by not showing up.

The moving of the G8 reduced the danger of a huge riot tearing up Chicago. While the risk is still there, it is considerably less than it would have been. The protest organizers have acknowledged as much, saying that it is much harder to mobilize the masses against NATO, about which the American people know something and to which they have some loyalty, than against G8, about which the people know next to nothing except what they hear from agitators via the media.

By staying away, Putin builds up his hard-line nationalist credentials without doing the world much damage. He did something similar, but with more damage, at the beginning of his first term. Later he might – or might not – choose to use those credentials again for making bargains with the West; in any case it gives him the flexibility.

Since Putin is not planning on being a constructive actor in this period, little is lost by his absence. The meeting may well accomplish more with his absence.

Russia's inclusion in the 1990s was based on the Russian regime's commitment under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to democratization and to integration with the West. Given the regime's subsequent disillusionment with both objectives, it would make sense to return to a “7 + 1” format.

De facto, “7 + 1” is how it has mostly functioned anyway. The seven have at times even returned to deciding some matters as a seven. They have had to.

When Russia's only summit-level leader refuses to attend the summit, it simply reinforces the logic of returning to “7 + 1.” And of course, it provides grist for the McCain faction’s mill, which wants to simply kick out Russia.

I should provide a full disclosure here. I advocated Russia's participation at the G7 summits ever since the late 1980s. It should have been done earlier than it was. I thought the G7 + 1 naming of its participation was an excellent step in the 1990s. I did not see any reason for changing the name to "8," just when Yeltsin was losing his grip (it was actually done as status-compensation for the failure to develop a logical role for Russia in NATO); it was obviously premature and untrue to the way the summit actually worked. The unreal name did real harm – to the G's legitimacy among mainstream Westerners as a summit of the Western democracies, to its ability to explain its raison d’etre, to its future (it fed the arguments for total dilution of the G by bringing in lots of other countries), and to its practical ability to get things done without obstructionism. The arguments for changing the name back to the more accurate “7+1” are, unfortunately, justified.

Obscured in all this snubbing is the drama of Russia-NATO-Afghanistan relations. Russia has objected, strongly, to NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan (and the West has requested that Russia become more active there as the West withdraws). Practically no one even notices Russia’s requests that NATO stay in Afghanistan. Probably that’s because it creates a cognitive dissonance, after everyone has gotten used to Russia's endless declamations about being against NATO’s projection of Western power around the world.

Less rhetoric will work better for Russia. Afghanistan shows a serious commonality of interests. One Russia cannot get acted on adequately as long as it has a pique-based diplomatic process.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Putin’s cancellation of his originally planned attendance of the G8 Summit at Camp David apparently intends to deliver several signals to Washington and the world.

Putin’s travel priorities are not Atlanticist. Domestic visits and travel to neighboring republics take higher priority. Then there is China and Asia in general, where most of Russia’s economic interests and opportunities are obvious. Europe is also a major economic and geographic neighbor.

In contrast, the United States has been relatively more distant from Russia in many aspects, and the “reset” appears to unfold as a promise that is not achieving its full potential.

Also, Washington has expressed opinions and taken positions that are demonstrably unfriendly to the Russian government. These include State Department pronouncements suggesting the non-legitimacy of the Russian Parliament (the Duma) elected in December of 2011 and the extraordinary involvement of the newly arrived U.S. Ambassador in Moscow with opponents of the Kremlin, even before this ambassador was officially presented to the Russian head of state. Add to this the long-standing and adamant refusal of the United States to accept any of what Russia considers its vital concerns regarding the American BMD deployment in Europe and the designation of Russia as America’s geopolitical foe number one by Mitt Romney, who has a high probability of becoming the next U.S. president.

In light of the above, and many other less prominent actions, not just Putin himself, but also a large and influential category of Russian politicians, the majority of the electorate may be questioning what benefits Russia receives from a soft-line approach to relations with the United States.

There is a perception in Russia that Washington does not value good relations with Moscow as highly as the Russians would expect. The Russians contrast how attentive the White House is to other governments, which like Russia are not part of Washington’s historic special relationships, and which seem to take a fairly hard-line attitude to certain American initiatives.

On the other hand, by delegating Medvedev to stand in for Russia’s president, the signal is an enhanced status for this Russian prime minister and a continuity of personal contacts with the current White House. So Russia will be present at the G8 Summit in Camp David and will be represented by a very senior official, who is also the recent chief executive of the country and has personal experience with the other attending heads of state as well as with the host.

Medvedev is not an “errand-boy,” just as Biden is not an errand-boy for his president. Constitutionally, the Russian prime minister has pro tempore succession powers, which places this Russian official on a footing near that of the Vice President of the United States.

Medvedev’s delegation to the G8 summit is a signal that the Putin-Medvedev tandem is presently strong and of a common purpose.

In summary, Washington’s actions and policies regarding Russia over the past several years seem to have reduced the value of relations with the White House in the perception of the Kremlin and of the majority of the Russian electorate. Secondly, because of his previous role as Russia’s President, like Putin before him, Medvedev is sustaining the enhanced policymaking importance of Russia’s office of prime minister. This aspect has precedent-setting implications for the future.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow, Professor of World Politics, Moscow State University

Why isn't Putin going to the G8 summit at Camp David?

Putin's decision not to attend the G8 summit at Camp David is a fairly logical step. Obama, though definitely disappointed, should not hold a grudge on this score. It was Obama himself who has recently indicated to Medvedev, and to the whole world via open mic, that his hands will be tied until the November elections. So what would be the point of Putin's trip? Putin and Obama have met many times and they know each other well, so the meeting would be largely ceremonial – and there is no urgent need for that.

At the same time, this gesture confirms Putin's intensions to keep the tandem fully operational. In the sharing of responsibilities between the tandem partners, Putin might delegate to Medvedev the oversight of his foreign policy agenda – at least in relations with the West, where Medvedev is obviously better liked than Putin. Who knows, Medvedev might score a few extra points with the G8 and the rest of the Western crowd by playing the good cop.

Of course, newly elected presidents often make their first foreign trips to countries they consider to be the most important in their strategic thinking. A recent example is newly elected French President Francois Hollande's trip to Germany the day after his inauguration. Putin's priorities, with his Eurasian Union idea, are obviously different: Belarus, Kazakhstan and China loom largest. Putin's brief visit to Abkhazia, little noticed in the media, should also be seen as a clear signal to Georgia and its Western backers regarding his intensions in this part of the world.

The expert community has repeatedly warned the U.S. foreign policy establishment that Washington's short-sighted treatment of Putin and its total disregard of Russia's geopolitical interests will push Moscow into China's welcoming embrace. Cynics, however, discounted such warnings, insisting that no matter what America does, Russia has no other place to go but right back to the United States, begging for handouts.

Such thinking could have had some merit in the 1990s, when Russia was close to financial and every other type of collapse. These days, however, it is America that has to worry about its own economic health. Many experts share the opinion of Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that today America stands on the brink of financial ruin, a disaster far more dangerous to our safety than any terrorist threats we face. One would also do well to remember at all times the current disastrous situation in Europe.

Taking into account these new realities, it is probably high time for Washington to rethink its arrogant policies. Instead of continually lecturing and criticizing Putin it might propose to him an ambitious and mutually beneficial cooperation agenda. If anything like it were to occur at the upcoming summit, I am sure Putin would come. The way things are, though, the G8 summit at Camp David is just a PR stunt with photo ops for its participants and a total waste of taxpayers' money.

I wish Medvedev might table such an agenda for discussion at the summit. This would at least partially justify the expense of the gathering and give the rest of the leaders some much-needed food for thought.

Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

Foreign policy analysts agree that President Vladimir Putin’s skipping the G8 meeting at Camp David is a snub directed at Barack Obama. Putin is furious that the United States continues to meddle in domestic Russian politics while it refuses to arrange a deal with Moscow over the American missile defense system in Europe. By sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place, Putin is turning the knife, since the entire world now knows that Medvedev is a “man of no consequence.”

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the highly touted NATO Chicago Summit that has been characterized as the most significant gathering of allied security experts for decades. Among the critical issues that will be discussed is what will the alliance do about the Afghanistan question: specifically, how will NATO prepare for the 2014 U.S.-led coalition’s exit from that troubled country?

In this connection, one of the most pressing matters is the role Russia will play in facilitating an endgame that denies the Taliban a return to power in Kabul. About three decades back, Soviet military and political leaders wrestled with many of the same problems that the Americans and their European allies are struggling with today: how to engineer an orderly exit from that hapless country without giving birth to a new round of internal warfare.

General John Allen, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan who has impressed Obama as a first-rate strategist, has closely studied the Soviet departure from the same killing fields that have preoccupied the U.S. military for a decade. There are lessons to be learned from that experience; perhaps the most significant one is that there is no unilateral solution to the Afghanistan question—all the stakeholders tethered to it must have a voice in its future.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, the Kremlin acknowledged that Afghanistan would relapse into a civil war or a radical Islamist takeover if the various stakeholders in the region did not devise a plan to stabilize a government in Kabul. In this instance, the support of the United States was vital, but the Americans would not accept the Soviet puppet, Najibullah, as Gorbachev first proposed. And later he could neither convince Ronald Reagan nor George H. W. Bush that a broad-based coalition government could be formed after the Soviet 40th Army left Afghanistan (for a discussion of the Soviet exit, see my monograph “The Afghanistan Question and the Reset in U.S.-Russian Relations,” which was published by the U.S. Army War College and can be downloaded free of charge.)

Today, Russia is merely one of several stakeholders whose cooperation is vital if the coalition exit does not end in disaster. American diplomats must convince China, Iran, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the Central Asian countries, that only a regional approach to the Afghanistan question makes sense, and that their vital interests are aligned with a stable government in Kabul. Given the friction between and among the stakeholders, that is a tall order, and as a consequence American officials have been reluctant to engage in this daunting undertaking. Note also that the government in question may include elements of the Taliban and that will prove to be a further complication for an American president.

Nonetheless, Russian officials who attend the Chicago Summit should be included in core discussions of the post-2014 Afghanistan. Moscow’s cooperation could facilitate the subsequent cooperation of other stakeholders. Such cooperation is vital even if Mitt Romney is elected president in November for the simple reason that only a multilateral solution to the Afghanistan question makes any sense.
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