international analysis and commentary

Putin, the G8 and the future of Russian foreign policy


Vladimir Putin’s absence from the 38th G8 Summit at Camp David does not constitute a change of direction in Russian foreign policy, rather it is a sign of continuity with Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. In fact, despite his return to the Kremlin as President, Putin will continue to concentrate mainly on internal affairs, while Medvedev focuses on the foreign issues that emerged during his presidency – i.e. the “reset” of ties with the US. Add to this the fact that the Russian government is still very concerned with the ongoing political crisis within the country and the international issues that impact the domestic arena.

Putin’s sudden decision to avoid the Summit triggered a heated debate over his motivations and the future of Russian foreign policy. The official explanation – that the recently sworn-in President is preoccupied with the complex process of forming the new Russian government – has to be complemented with the ones that the Russian authorities are reluctant to expose. These include, above all, the unstable political situation in the country, within the elites and in terms of the unexpectedly strong protest movement; Putin’s personal preference for bilateral rather than multilateral talks; and his shrinking domestic legitimacy – which makes him weaker abroad, especially in the company of leaders from more developed and democratic countries. At the same time, as the G8 Summit has shown, there are important pending issues that require Russian involvement – above all the questions of the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian uprising.

On May 7th, Mr. Putin became the President of a much more complex country in respect to the Russia of 12 years ago when he first crossed the three ceremonial halls of the Grand Kremlin Palace. Society at large has become much less uniform and docile. An increasing number of people have turned into vocal citizens, driven by the demand of functional and independent institutions rather than an increase in government subsidies, as was the case at end of the 1990s. People do not just want a car, they also want the government to fairly regulate the traffic. These developments were most pronounced in Moscow, which was the scene of several mass protest rallies. The latest major rally, which took place a day before Putin’s Byzantine inauguration, resulted in the most violent mass clash of protesters with the riot police since 1993.

As a consequence, the situation became increasingly complex and it became difficult for Putin to control it in the usual ”manual” mode. The very things that made Putin so popular 10 years ago began to turn against him: the “vertical of power” appeared to be too rigid to adapt, while the image of a macho man only increased irritation among the public. In this situation Putin could not allow himself to be in the position he was in at the beginning of the 2008 South Ossetia war – Putin was in China at the opening of the Olympics while then-President Medvedev was left in Moscow to make crucial decisions. This time, Putin had to stay in Russia to oversee the situation personally.

At the same time, mounting public protest represents only one of the challenges to his power. As soon as the people began to demonstrate mass discontent, many former members of the Putin team felt more at ease to voice their concerns. Among the new dissenters are such influential figures as the former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. The are also widespread rumors that many of the former ministers refused to be part of the new government as it is seen to be much less legitimate and stable in the long term.

One of Putin’s main achievements was his ability to balance the conflicting interests of different clans in the government. For instance, Kudrin was seen to be the leader of the “liberal” wing that opposed Igor Sechin, the Acting Deputy Prime Minister who was responsible for the energy sector and represented the state-centric “siloviki” group of heads of law enforcement agencies. In his new (and old) capacity as Prime Minister, Medvedev also has his own ambitions of bringing some members of his entourage into the government. Above all, the distribution of power in Russia in its essence corresponds to the distribution of wealth. In the absence of independent impersonal mechanisms of rotation, Putin had to stay in Moscow to make sure the overall power elite remains cohesive and, as a consequence, loyal to him.

In contrast to the internal situation, the foreign policy explanations of Putin’s decision to skip the Summit are not as convoluted. First of all, Putin is known to dislike multilateral international forums that involve a lot of protocol with little substance behind it. Also, in the context of the rapidly developing BRICS, as well as the other members of the G20, the G8 is now often seen as more of a prestige club rather than the collective “world government” it was meant to be in the 1990s when Yeltsin worked hard to make Russia part of it.

Apart from that, Medvedev is widely considered to be the appropriate person to execute the role of the ceremonial representative of Russia. Medvedev also personally worked on the reset of the US-Russian relationship with Barack Obama. In the case of important issues, Medvedev “will transmit this message to Vladimir” as he was heard saying in Seoul in response to Obama’s request to wait until after the US presidential elections to discuss the subject of missile defense.

Nevertheless, it seems that Obama wanted to discuss these issues with Putin in person. First the Summit was moved from Chicago to Camp David, far from the location of the NATO Summit and from the “Occupy” Chicago street protesters. Then Obama decided to invite Putin to the Oval Office to demonstrate the importance of the meeting and the guest. So far it is difficult to assess the results of Putin’s abrupt decision to skip these occasions. At the same time, the White House announced that Obama will not be able to make a visit to the 2012 APEC Summit in Vladivostok.

Important pending issues, such as Iran and Syria, that were on the G8’s agenda, require direct Russian involvement: as was noted among others by Javier Solana – the former EU High Representative for foreign and security policy – in a recent opinion piece, this is a reason why Putin’s presence  at Camp David would have been useful.

In any case, now that the Summit is over, it will be more important to observe how Russia will approach these problems during Putin’s new term in office. Given the current internal political situation in the country, it is not likely that Russia’s overall foreign policy will be greatly altered with Putin preoccupied inside the country and Medvedev travelling around the world. In fact, this continuity of policy was exactly what Medvedev emphasized at his final Camp David press conference.