The early departure of Vladimir Putin from the G20 Summit in Australia means that the situation in Ukraine is not about to fundamentally change anytime soon. But there is still opportunity for private, behind-the-scenes dialogue out of public view.

L-R: President of France Francois Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Brisbane, Australia, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. Photo: AP

It turns out the rumors were true and Russian President Vladimir Putin did end his participation in the G20 summit in Australia earlier than expected, returning home to “get some sleep ahead of the working week.” Hardly anyone believes this official version, which could instead be seen as a way of saying that the president was irritated with the reception he received. It is hardly helpful to discuss whether or not the reception and the reaction were justified. What is more important is to understand what it means for Russians, G20 members, Ukrainians and the rest of the world and what should be done next.

First, it means that the current crisis in Ukraine will continue because there is no indication of a solution that could be accepted by all parties. In his final remarks for the media, President Putin mentioned that all the bilateral meetings during the summit were devoted to Ukraine almost exclusively, although they had never been part of the official summit agenda. Essentially, he came to Australia to talk about Ukraine.

It turns out that the G20 as a global institution is of limited significance for Moscow at the moment. Initially, it brought together heads of governments and states as a global financial crisis rapid response mechanism. However, in the following years, it turned into an institution with a broader agenda that does not necessarily correspond to the current priorities of each and every member at every point of time.

Having successfully hosted a G20 summit in St. Petersburg in 2013, Russia largely shifted priorities. In 2013, the goal was to organize the discussion during the country’s presidency year and host the summit in the most efficient manner to prove once again that the country belongs in the top tier of global financial players. An opportunity to meet with most global leaders at the summit was far more important for Russia than the official G20 agenda.

Of course, some of the core G20 issues are still pressing, for example, international tax issues aimed at preventing tax evasion. However, they are all being superseded by Ukraine in Russian decision makers’ minds. And that could also be one of the reasons why Putin left the summit early. As the head of state, he deals with the issues he considers most important and in the foreign policy domain that would be Ukraine at the moment. Having held all the bilateral meetings where the issue was discussed and having used every other opportunity to discuss it in between the meetings, Putin could honestly say that his job was done. 

In that sense, the Australian summit was round three for Russia trying to establish a presidential-level communication mechanism. First, Putin expressed his worldviews at the meeting of the Valdai Club in Sochi in late October. Then there was an APEC summit in Beijing in November when Putin had a couple of short conversations with Obama, but without a full-scale bilateral meeting. Finally, there were the bilateral meetings in Australia. Yet, no indication of progress on the Ukrainian crisis means that the current state of affairs in international relations will not be changing any time soon.

The second outcome of a somewhat abrupt summit ending for Russia means that we all have to be more responsible. Global politics is no longer about closed-door ministerial level meetings. It involves numerous stakeholders including the expert community, media and the public. A transparent meetings format as well as cameras all over the summit venue used at the G20 Summit prevent frank and open communication, rather than stimulate them. National public opinion leaders and domestic opposition members essentially sit behind every G20 participant, looking for opportunities to capitalize on what could be perceived as indications of weakness. Too much friendliness with the Russian President would probably be seen that way.

Following a summit meeting in the same way as we watch the football world cup hardly helps in reaching agreements. Public opinion willing to see their representative as a strong champion is not always helpful in international negotiations. This is sometimes the reason why negotiations take place as far as possible both from the public and the media as, for  example, Israeli-Palestinian talks in Norway in 1993. Recent research on public opinion and wars in democracies also indicates that there is no reason to expect that the public will support a dovish stand.

With numerous definitions of diplomacy, there is one thing most of them have in common: Diplomacy is about communications. There were multiple cases in history when sides to a conflict had to limit or abandon talking to each other entirely. In one of them, Russia’s then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov decided to cancel his visit to the U.S. while already airborne over the mid-Atlantic, making a U-turn later called  ‘Primakov’s loop’ after NATO started a military operation in Serbia in 1999.

Once political leaders start taking actions, talking does not get easier. Apparently, the leaders used the G20 summit to the extent they could to at least exchange opinions. Now it is the public’s job to create conditions for them to be able to find solutions not to prevent them from doing so.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Read another opinion: Putin's early exit from G20 does not bode well for Russia on world stage