Russia's G8 suspension may not be as tragic as it seems.
A session of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland held on 18 June 2013. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexey Nikolsky
Over the last 15 years, Russia’s membership in the G8 group has been viewed by the country’s analysts as one of the most significant achievements of Russian diplomacy. But it has not always been easy for journalists to explain to readers exactly why belonging to this elite club is so attractive for the Kremlin.
The standard answer was that thanks to membership in the G8, the country, its reformed economy, political elite, corporations and institutions of civil society were recognized at the world’s highest political level. It was also supposed that the G8 would give Russia not only the right to occupy the chair bestowed on the Russian president in this elite club, but also the right to participate in discussions of key issues on the global agenda.
Read an opposing view: The real reason why Russia is no longer part of G8
The reality turned out to be less rosy. The Group of 8 operates on many levels, including, but not limited to, ministers, chiefs of staff of the governments’ leaders, and heads of security structures. Russia’s representatives often were not treated on all these levels as other participants were. For example, several years after “Russia’s full membership” in the G8 group in 1998, the Russian minister of finance and the head of the central bank were still waiting to be invited to discussions about the status of global finances and the formulation of measures to manage them.
Of course, the Russian president was hardly restricted in the right to appear at the annual G8 meetings. But for observers it was obvious that the main function of the Russian president’s participation in G8 summits was to hold bilateral meetings with other world leaders.
Russia’s moment of truth came in July 2006. At that time, Russia for the first time received the right to chair the G8 for a year, defining the order of the day and developing drafts of outcome documents. The expectations in the Kremlin regarding the coming chairmanship of the G8 were tremendous. The disillusionment was even more acute.
During the period of spring and early summer 2006, the Russian leaders in practice became convinced that only one perspective reigned in the G8: the American one. All of Russia’s attempts to open discussion on the economic issues that were most important to it – energy security and equal responsibility of energy manufacturers and consumers in the markets’ functioning – were rebuffed.
In fact, in spring 2006 the United States for the first time unsheathed its sharpest weapon in the G8’s arsenal: the threat to eject Russia from the Group of 8 for “misbehavior,” that is, the reluctance to follow the agenda set in Washington and the decisions made there. Senator John McCain was the first to voice this threat, and he was echoed many times over by other people.
After the July 2006 G8 summit at the Constantine Palace, Russia’s enthusiasm for membership in the G8 waned. It fell partly with Dmitry Medvedev’s election as Russian president in spring 2008. Within the context of the G8 summits, the United States tried to enact its plan of creating a rift in the personal relationship of the two Russian leaders, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
The demonstrative support of President Medvedev as the leading example of a new generation of Russian leaders, periodic attempts to portray him in the Western news media as a “new Gorbachev,” the prompt apology of the third Russian president for the military action in Georgia under the pretext that it was “not his decision” – all of these were the work of Western politicians, attempting to create a rift with the then prime minister Putin, so that it would not be noticeable in the Kremlin.
In the context of the G8 summits, what resonated most loudly were the appeals to Putin to renounce another election to the Russian presidency, and better yet, to voluntarily exit the stage and retire. For any leader of a sovereign nation, such behavior by partners is nothing less than rude meddling in the domestic affairs of the country. It cannot go unanswered.
In the Kremlin, no one could fail to notice that there were no real discussions in the G8: The summits of this international forum only stamped declarations that had been prepared in the White House. This did not require much time, so the G8 meetings turned into high-class galas, and they began to occur concurrently with other events, such as the G8+5, that is, a regular summit of the G8 powers and the largest countries that did not belong to it (including China and India).
Starting in 2008, from the time of the first-ever summit of the world’s 20 largest economies (that is, the G20 group), the G8 entered a crisis period from which it most likely will never emerge.
Resuming the presidency in spring 2012, Putin used the first opportunity to deliver an answering blow to Washington, that year’s chair of the G8. In May 2012, he ignored involvement in the work of the Group of 8 despite concerted American diplomatic efforts to invite him. This came to a head in May 2012, when the United States decided to hold the G8 summit in Chicago in conjunction with a meeting of NATO’s leaders.
Knowing Putin’s negative attitude toward NATO, the White House took what for it was an unusual diplomatic step: Just a few weeks before the G8 meeting, the White House moved it from Chicago, where it had initially been set to take place, to Washington.
But even this action by Washington did not soften Putin’s position. In sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his stead to the G8 summit, he was making a clear statement in diplomatic language: If you seven nations like dealing with Dmitry Medvedev, be my guest. But you’ll need to talk to me one-on-one.
In other words, as far back as two years ago, in spring 2012, Russia had made it clear that it did not really need the Group of 8. If Russian participation in the G8 serves only as grounds for bilateral meetings between the Russian and U.S. leaders (this was Putin’s rationale for attending the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in 2013), then Russia currently does not need such “diplomatic cover.”
Russia has its share of issues with the United States. Washington evidently has problems that it would like to discuss with Russia. Consequently, the two sides need to have full-fledged summits, not short meetings “on the margins” of the G8 sessions.
This is why Russia should not be concerned about the cancellation of the G8 summit in Sochi. The Russian Federation no longer needs yearly confirmation of its status as a great power.
Russia would like to pass from the current unipolar system of international relations, in which Washington makes the rules of the game, to a fairer, multipolar system in which the interests of many “stakeholders,” including Russia, are taken into consideration.
Russia negatively reacted to the United States’ intervention in the events on Kiev’s Maidan. Recognition by the Kremlin of the Crimean referendum is a punishment to the United States for trying to play by rules it has created on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Expulsion from other international organizations, except for those that are completely subordinated to Washington, does not threaten us now. Russia’s position regarding Crimea is backed by the BRICS partners, and for Russia this is now more valuable than a clap on the shoulder by the parties in the “coalition of the willing,” which the G8 group has turned into since Russia’s departure from it.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.