international analysis and commentary

Russia, the G7/G8 and no looking back


The Russia of President Vladimir Putin will not seek re-admission into the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations just as the West will not invite it back. The other members of the former G8 expelled Moscow from the Group in 2014 (hence it went back to its previous G7 configuration) in response to the annexation of Crimea.

The resulting and ongoing conflict between Russia’s current elites and the West is a zero-sum game that can only end with one of the parties admitting defeat. This means that either the country will be transformed or the international system will undergo a fundamental change. Under both scenarios, either a different Russia will make another attempt to become a full member of the West, or the Western core itself will be replaced by what can broadly be called a multi-polar system of international relations with the G7 eclipsed by more inclusive platforms.

When the Russian Federation was actively courting the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was basically admitting defeat. The prospect of quickly bridging the gap in development with Europe was seen by Russian elites as a way to heal the psychological trauma produced by the fall of the Soviet “empire”. When it came to light that the gap was much wider than many thought and that Russia’s transformation into a modern prosperous democracy would be gradual and painful, the Russian elites saw membership in the G7 as a symbolic prize that would legitimize it as deserving the status of a great Western power.

When Moscow joined the elite group in 1998, the decision was seen in the West as an effort to consolidate President Boris Yeltsin’s democratic gains and as a way to support his pro-Western course. Russia was suffering from a sharp economic decline and there was a real threat that a communist leader would reappear in the Kremlin.

Russian society at the time was already disillusioned by the fruits of Western-style capitalist reforms. People were ready to embrace a leader who could bring basic order and predictability back into their daily lives. Such a leader materialized in Putin, who became President in 2000 after a stint as Prime Minister under Yeltsin. A former member of the Soviet security apparatus, turned effective statesman, Putin was a perfect fit for the situation.

In the beginning, Putin was not an anti-Western president. He quickly gained overwhelming popularity after brutally quelling insurgents and terrorists in a restive Republic of Chechnya. He introduced a number of effective tax and other reforms that, together with growing oil prices, launched steady economic growth. All basic indicators of human development began to grow for the first time in Russia since the 1980s.

Suddenly, Russian elites realized that in order to be prosperous it was not necessary to be Western or even pro-Western. Moreover, Putin slowly saw that what makes him popular inside Russia makes him a pariah in the West. Putting oligarchs under control was lauded by the general public in Russia, but raised questions about the rule of law in the West. Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008 was seen as a sign of its growing international prowess at home, but raised alarm abroad about the Kremlin’s expanding appetite for territorial expansion. In the beginning, the Kremlin attempted to hone its image in the West, but after 2012 Putin consciously chose domestic popularity over Western approval.

At the 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, Putin was already seen as an outsider. Russia supported Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, while all other members wanted to demand his resignation in a collective statement. Later, at the 2013 G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Putin and US President Barack Obama agreed to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under control. The deal was seen as a breakthrough, but Russia-West relations were already fundamentally broken.

The break was formalized in 2014 after a pro-Western government came into power in Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea. After more than a year of intense negotiations in the framework of the Minsk agreement, the Ukraine crisis is still far from being settled. For Russia Ukraine is of existential importance, while for the West Ukraine is practicallymarginal. However, both Russia and the West are unwilling to admit defeat.

Today, Russia has re-emerged as a country that questions the existing world order. Commentators on Russian state television portray the West as fundamentally immoral and malicious. The government has allocated significant sums of public money to create an international news channel that constructs an alternative narrative of what is happening in the world. It is clear through this medium that Putin’s Russia hopes that the rising China, the “BRICS” more broadly and other developing nations will eventually make the West give up its dominant role in world affairs.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, said on the eve of the 2016 G7 Summit in Japan, that Russia is not as interested in the Group as it once was and that the question of its return is currently not on the agenda. Putin himself said in January that Russia was never a full-fledged member of the G8 because “there were always some separate talks between foreign ministers of the seven [other] countries.”

Some Western politicians, most notably Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, hope they can use the prospect of Russia’s return as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with the Kremlin. Steinmeier realizes that the group would be stronger with Russia, while Abe needs the Kremlin’s support in the face of China’s growing military might.

Russia still seeks to be a great power, but no longer a Western – or Westernized –  one. Russian elites are still pro-Western in terms of their lifestyle preferences, but they no longer think that they need to join the West politically. The latest Summit in Japan did not generate much interest in the Russian public. The Kremlin does not seek to return as it has already burned its bridges. What Russia is looking forward to, rather, is the September G20 Summit that, as fate would have it, will be hosted by China.