G8 summit: Putin conspicuous by his absence

18.05.2012 - 12:25

Russian President Vladimir Putin decided not to attend the Group of Eight (G8) summit hosted by US President Barack Obama to be held at the Camp David US presidential retreat in Maryland on 18-19 May. Putin told Obama when the latter called to congratulate him on his inauguration that he will be too busy finalising Cabinet appointments, adding that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would replace him.

“Putin reminded that he is a difficult partner who tends to be unpredictable and tends to abrupt moves,” Maria Lipman, a foreign policy analyst with Carnegie Moscow Centre, told New Europe on 17 May.

Some questions arise that actually raise some doubts whether the official explanation of forming the Cabinet is indeed the reason why Putin skipped the G8 summit. Putin knew that after his inauguration he would be busy forming the Cabinet. “So at least what can be said is that the formation of the Cabinet must have become more difficult and even an emergency process and if suddenly the formation of the cabinet is such an intense and difficult issue why then the head of the Cabinet, Mr Medvedev, can leave Russia and can be in Camp David at that same time. This is at least one reason why this explanation raises some doubts,” Lipman said. “If this is not the real reason or not the only reason, then we should be thinking about some of the unexpected domestic developments.”

So why did Putin change his mind? At least around two months ago, Putin was determined to go and Obama reportedly moved the venue to Camp David from Chicago, the location of a NATO summit on 19-20 May, to make Putin's trip to the G8 convenient although the Russian leader later decided to skip them both.

Putin’s election in early March was preceded and accompanied by public protests. The US administration congratulated Putin on his victory only several days later when most top Western leaders had given their congratulatory messages. “Moreover, just very recently the mass protests the day before Putin’s inauguration was accompanied by clashes with the police and expressions of concern by the US administration - not very harsh concern, not at the top level - but all this created an atmosphere in which Putin could think that he is not very welcome that maybe it would be inappropriate for him to go,” Lipman said.

What's more, Putin would look bad among his supporters if his first foreign trip in his third presidential term were to the US. “At that time when Putin said that he would not go it looked like this would be his first foreign visit and given the cooling of relations in the course of the past long months that didn’t look appropriate either,” Lipman said.

Instead Putin's first official visit as president will be to Belarus on 31 May. Putin may go to Germany and France right after the visit to Belarus. Putin will come to St. Petersburg from Europe to take part in the Russia-EU summit. He will go east afterwards. The president will visit Uzbekistan and then attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Beijing on 6-7 June. Putin may visit Kazakhstan on the way back from China.

“Russian foreign policy in general is reactive and responding to the developments elsewhere so I think it would be wrong to say that because of this cancellation of the visit to the [G8] summit we should expect a new foreign policy away from the United States and towards Belarus or the CIS. I think will continue his foreign policy of responding to concrete developments,” Lipman said.

Regarding the “reset” policy introduced by Obama and then-President Medvedev between 2008 and 2010, Lipman reminded that it was completed successfully, having borne such fruit as the conclusion of the New START treaty. “Actually the ‘reset’ was quite successful in the first maybe two-three years. It certainly can boast quite tangible achievements. But these achievements have to do with very concrete aspects of co-operation: The New START treaty, the transit of American deliveries to Afghanistan across Russian territory, somewhat better co-operation between Russia and the US on Iran, co-operation on peaceful nuclear,” Lipman said. But she added that the “rest” has failed to change the atmosphere of this trust that underlines US-Russian relations. “In this atmosphere sooner or later after you have exhausted the agenda that consists of very concrete aspects of relations it’s the contradictions that come to the fore,” she said.

Putin has made anti-American rhetoric such a significant part of his foreign policy vector as a whole. “The fact that Putin has not gone [to the G9 summit] is in line with the slowdown or cooling of the relations between the two countries. It’s a symptom, not a cause that would signal further deterioration. It’s a symptom of the same and other symptoms include the anti-American rhetoric of the Russia parliamentary and presidential campaigns and criticisms from the American side or through concern expressed by the American side over the parliamentary elections expressed by [US Secretary of State] Hilary Clinton and other expressions of concern that followed the events of 6 May in Russia,” Lipman said. “In general the agenda of Russia-American relations include several very concrete and undoubted achievements but other than that it’s not an agenda that is underlined by trust that is moving towards something that would be a close partnership or let alone an alliance. In this there hasn’t been much progress,” she added.