Vladimir Putin made some important progress at the recent G20 Summit in Hangzhou, but there are three reasons why Russia’s participation may not have been as successful as some think.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, Sept. 5, 2016. Photo: AP
The Russian media’s coverage of the recent G20 Summit in China seems to be sending one key message – the significance of the G20 as an organization is growing while the role of the G7 after Russia’s exclusion has fallen sharply. The G7, according to this narrative, has turned into a powerless institution that is unable to influence and resolve any of the existing international problems.
The criticism directed at the G7 is not groundless, of course, but the evident decline of the organization has no connection with Russia’s exclusion from the club of Western democracies. There are several other reasons why the G7 has lost its luster: the new configuration of the world economy after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, U.S. foreign policy failures in the Middle East and the EU’s internal problems.
As for the role of the G20, which has earned the praise of Russian media commentators, there are many signs of wishful thinking. True, the G20 has become an important international forum. And it’s also true that China and Russia help to set the tone of every G20 Summit. However, it’s important to consider the bigger picture.
The summit in Hangzhou merely strengthened a trend that was emerging for a long time. Keep in mind that the meetings that took place on the sidelines of the summit attracted far more attention than the official sessions. Journalists did not even mention any of the G20’s decisions in their coverage; instead, they eagerly discussed the embarrassing incident when U.S. President Barack Obama attempted to disembark from his airplane but there was no staircase waiting for him or the facial expressions of the world leaders during the collective photo session.
Dozens of sessions of the G20, which views itself essentially as the board of directors of the world’s economy, resulted in a non-binding communiqué of 48 brief points. It is quite clear that truly influential and authoritative institutions release more substantial documents of a different nature.
Also read: Russia Direct Report "Why the G20 Still Matters for Russia"
Notwithstanding all the problems associated with the G20’s ability to act, the real reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s participation in this year’s summit had a different focus, far removed from the world of economic policy.
In Hangzhou, Putin aimed to make the most of opportunities open at the forum to achieve short-term foreign policy goals. Specifically, his goal was to apply diplomatic pressure on the United States.
It is evident that if Obama did not need to demonstrate American leadership within an international setting, he would rather avoid a meeting with his Russian counterpart in such unfavorable conditions – on the territory of China, during the period when Washington’s relations with Moscow and Beijing are strained because of Syria and Ukraine and tensions are escalating in the South China Sea.
Over the last few years, hitting the U.S. with tiny pinpricks whenever possible has become the favorite tactic used by Russian diplomats and Vladimir Putin himself. The G20 Summit in China provided a wide range of opportunities for that. Obama came to the summit in a very vulnerable state: as a “lame duck” president who desperately needs positive developments in all key directions of U.S. foreign policy.
Such improvements would help to tone down the voices of Obama’s political opponents in the U.S. and abroad. As well, a sense that Obama left the world a safer place than when his tenure began could help to create more favorable conditions for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Vladimir Putin did everything possible in Hangzhou to prevent the American leader from reaching his goals by the end of the summit. If Obama thought that he was going to leave China with at least a verbal commitment for a settlement in Syria or Ukraine, he was mistaken.
Just before the summit, Russian-American negotiations over Syria and Ukraine were suddenly intensified and over a few weeks, foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry met a great number of times while agreeing on conditions for the beginning of a joint Russian-American operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups. It actually appeared as if the leaders would come to a mutually beneficial agreement during their bilateral meeting in China.
However, at the very last moment, when the American side had no options for exiting gracefully from an unpromising and politically detrimental meeting, Russian diplomats pulled out a tactic from the old Soviet playbook.
During the Cold War, Andrei Gromyko, a Soviet minister of foreign affairs, earned the nickname “Mr. No” for his unshakeable position at the negotiating table. His response to any overture from the West was always the same – “No.” And now, just as then, a potential deal was broken at the last moment.
It seemed as if the U.S. president tried long and hard to persuade Putin to make concessions, but the Russian leader firmly rejected all American efforts to make him act contrary to Russia’s national interests.
The absence of a Russian-U.S. agreement on Syria is not a big deal for Moscow, although Kremlin will definitely take a credit for the special attention Obama paid to Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in China. The fact that the leader of the free world requested a meeting with Putin will allow Moscow to say again that the West’s isolation of Russia has failed.
Apart from that, Putin managed to score several foreign policy points by conducting meetings with world leaders. He also was treated by the summit organizers as “the main guest” and avoided hard-hitting talks on Ukraine that might have been politically awkward.
Seemingly, all those steps demonstrate the quite substantial success of Russian diplomacy. However, there are some points that could dilute the value of any apparent diplomatic wins.
First, as it was already mentioned, the G20 is turning into more of a disjointed union, along the lines of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), where opposing interests of its numerous members are impossible to accommodate. For this reason, exerting extra effort to cement one’s positions in such a union does not make much sense.
It is highly likely that with the next U.S. president, Washington will lose interest in the G20. As a result, either this format will gradually fade away or will turn into an instrument of China’s influence. None of these options is attractive for Russia.
Second, when Vladimir Putin turns a policy of inflicting real and symbolic damage on the U.S. into a measure of success for Russian diplomacy, he merely achieves easy tactical successes, while strategically creating serious long-term problems for Russia's foreign policy.
Crises in Ukraine and in Syria are certainly a bane for Washington but in the long run, the damage to Russia from these conflicts will be incommensurably higher than for the U.S. This is why it is in Russia’s interests to do everything possible to resolve those conflicts as soon as possible, even if it requires certain concessions to the U.S.
Third, the Kremlin's excessive focus on symbolic honors, as well as the need for a constant confirmation of Russia’s inviolable sovereignty and the inability to isolate the nation on the world stage, demonstrate that Russia’s leadership has serious problems with self-identification and a lack of self-confidence.
When a meeting with the U.S. president or receiving special honors from Chinese leaders becomes an aim of diplomacy rather than an instrument for change, it is a worthy reason to re-think the prospects of such a foreign policy.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.