Russian and foreign experts analyze what to expect from the Kremlin after the G20 summit. Some hope that Western pressure in Australia and the threat of further sanctions may finally force Russia to change its Ukraine policy.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (R) stands near Russian President Vladimir Putin after officially welcoming him to the G20 leaders summit in Brisbane November 15, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s early departure from the G20 summit in Australia and his explanation for it ("On Monday I must go to work. I hope to have four or five hours to sleep”) brought about a great deal of interest from the media.

The media seems to have mulled over the implications of Putin’s early departure instead of focusing on the more relevant results of the summit: providing for the world’s sustainable economic growth, modernizing the international tax system to prevent cross-border tax evasion, fostering modern infrastructure and developing new initiatives for energy efficiency.

While last year’s summit in St. Petersburg was a diplomatic triumph for Putin and a setback for U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. and Russian leaders appear to have traded places in 2014. With Obama treated like a leader at the G20 summit, the cool reception given to Putin was conspicuous, as indicated from numerous media reports. Journalists paid a great deal of attention to the negligence of diplomatic protocol toward Putin, including the awkward placement of the Russian President in the G20 “family photo” and his solitude at the summit.

One of the most salient moments of the summit that grabbed the attention of the media was the gesture from Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. During the official greetings for the G20 summit in Brisbane, he reluctantly shook Putin’s hand and said, according to his spokesman Jason MacDonald: “Well I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”

As it was expected, the G20 leaders paid a lot of attention to the Ukrainian crisis. Some experts argue that the West’s major goal was to send message to Putin about his strategy in Ukraine, so that he could personally feel it. Meanwhile, other pundits see actions taken at the G20 summit in Brisbane as a form of diplomatic aggression from the West.     

“Those G20 leaders who were against revoking Putin's invitation to Brisbane turned out to be right,” said Oleg Buklemishev, an associate professor in the department of economics at Moscow State University (MGU), who previously worked as an assistant to Russia’s finance minister and prime minister.

He sees the summit as the West’s attempt to send “another strong signal directly and personally” to Putin to imply “that his policy in Ukraine is not accepted and won't be accepted.” 

“But the fact that the other leaders without exception tacitly supported this stance became a little bit of a surprise and proved that despite all the foreign policy efforts applied lately, the isolation of Russia in the international arena is progressing,” he clarified.

L-R: Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott at the G-20 summit in Australia. Photo: Reuters

Likewise, Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe, argues that the West was “very clear and very direct” with Putin regarding Russia's responsibility for fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine. According to Pifer, the Western leaders highlighted the importance for Moscow to change its policy “or face continued, and possibly more robust, economic sanctions.” 

“His continued denial that Russian forces are in Eastern Ukraine only diminished his credibility,” Pifer added. “Mr. Putin clearly did not like the message he heard and that, I believe, was the reason he chose to depart Brisbane early. True, he had a long flight home. But that excuse does not hold much water.  Most G20 leaders had long flights home but nevertheless chose to stay through the entire summit.”

Meanwhile, Buklemishev agrees that Putin left the summit departure “under a doubtful pretext.” He also sees the president's early departure as a sign of nervousness.

In contrast, Stanislav Tkachenko, the professor in the International Relations Department at St. Petersburg State University, regards Putin’s stance as a scoffing gesture directed to the West and a decent response to the arrogance he faced at the summit.    

“The arrogant behavior of Canada’s Prime Minister and Australia’s attempt to humiliate the Russian president diplomatically indicate their lack of diplomatic decency and propriety,” Tkachenko said. “Meanwhile, the Russia leader was forced to withstand a diplomatic strike. His response (he needed to sleep in to return to work on Monday) looks like an obvious mockery intended for his Western partners. This response should be included in the university textbooks as a good example of a decent response to diplomatic boorishness. Hopefully, the Kremlin will regard with humor such unprofessionalism of Australia.”

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute of Columbia University, believes that criticism for Putin from the Australian, Canadian and British prime ministers  and “further chastening” during the summit were doubtless “heard, although almost surely in ways more annoying than persuasive.”

“In any event, the Russian leader likely regarded the meeting — and meeting of minds — that he had with fellow BRICS members as far more significant than the familiar scolding of Western counterparts,” Legvold said.

He is very hesitant to exactly say whether Putin’s early departure signaled his displeasure with the lecturing from the Western leaders or he simply did not want to be around when the EU and U.S. used their last hours together to focus on the Ukrainian issue.

“Whatever the case, it is interesting that in his ARD interview in Vladivostok on his way back to Moscow he chose to appear above it all and to stress the positive aspects in Russian-German relations, as though he were oblivious to the considerable damage that has been done to them,” Legvold said.

The implications of the G20 summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves his hotel en route to Brisbane Airport as he leaves the G20 leaders summit early, November 16, 2014.  Photo: Reuters

While journalists paid a great deal of attention to Putin’s moves at the summit, they missed some important achievements of the summit.

“In Russia, the summit was seen almost entirely through the lens of the Ukrainian crisis pending but in reality it was not the case,” said Buklemishev. “The policies discussed and further developed included modernization of the international tax system to prevent cross-border tax evasion, and stimulus measures to build up modern infrastructure and create jobs, energy efficiency and international trade facilitation.”

Legvold echoes this view. While some Western countries stressed their frustration over Russian policy in Ukraine, most G20 members were focused on the shaky state of the global economy, he said.

“The action plan announced at the summit is said to have more than 800 reform measures intended to capture tax returns in home markets, aid in rebuilding national infrastructure, reduce regulatory red tape, and facilitate the entry of women into the work place,” Legvold clarified. 

In contrast, Tkachenko discounts the summit’s results. He sees the G20 summit in Brisbane as “the most fruitless summit of the G20” since 2008, when it was founded.  One of the tasks of the G20 leaders – creating tools for coordinating macroeconomic policy at regional level throughout the world – turned out to have been insurmountable, according to him. Tkachenko argues that the participants of the summit started “overloading” the summit’s sessions with politics. As a result, the forum deviated from its traditional mission, but failed to find a new one.  

“Without doubt, the Ukrainian crisis predominated in the minds of the G20 leaders,” he said. “However, what happened and didn’t happen in Brisbane reveal the very essence of the crisis: The military conflict in Ukraine is an external reflection of increasing confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.”   

Tkachenko argues that the G20 summit failed to come up with a strategy for resolving the Ukrainian crisis.

“Given Washington’s big role in resolving the Ukrainian crisis and minimal influence of other participants of the summit (Berlin, Tokyo and Canberra), it makes no sense for Russia to discuss the Ukrainian crisis with those G20 states that are seen as mediators, not decision makers,” he claims. “So, it should be a tête-à-tête discussion [with the U.S.], not a discussion at the G20 common breakfast.” 

Buklemishev argues that the G20 summit poses a dilemma for Putin, “whether to hold back a bit to prepare grounds for compromise with the united front of the main international partners of Russia or otherwise to continue to raise stakes in the game with a very weak hand.”

“This public affront will certainly have not only foreign policy but serious domestic repercussions as well,” he said.

Pifer is hesitant to make certain predictions regarding Russia’s future policy in Ukraine after the summit.

“It remains to be seen what message Mr. Putin draws from his conversations in Brisbane. Hopefully, he better appreciates the fact that his current policy toward Ukraine will mean that the Russian economy will continue to face strong Western sanctions,” he said.