What's really behind Vladimir Putin's surprising decision to skip the G-8 summit?
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to attend the G-8 summit and send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a stand-in has been seen by many as a bold snub to Washington and has raised important questions about the Russian leader’s motivations. Beyond that looms the larger, and much more important, question about the future of Russia’s foreign policy and its relations with the West. What if Putin’s real motives, however, are exactly as advertised by his Kremlin aides — that he needs to focus on forming a new government at home? If that’s true, it offers a remarkable insight into the process of power balancing among the clans that make up Russia’s cabinet. Either way, it’s a hell of a way to begin a new term.
Unlike Putin and Medvedev’s announcement last September that they had long planned to swap places, the G-8 decision must have been made only in the last few days. When Putin announced that he would not attend the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago, he did confirm for the May 18-19 G-8 summit, which was then moved to Camp David by Barack Obama’s administration. Until early May, U.S. and Russian diplomats were working hard on the Obama-Putin meeting to be held at the White House on the margins of the G-8 summit. Putin’s public statements on the eve of his May 7 inauguration indicated his willingness to work with the United States on matters of mutual interest and even "go really far" in that direction, as his foreign-policy aide put it. For that, of course, Putin requires a working personal relationship with Obama, the current and likely future president of the United States. Snubbing him would make no sense.
So, something must have happened quite recently to make Putin change his mind. Of recent developments, two things stand out: the demonstrations in Moscow on the eve of and on Inauguration Day and the remarkable tardiness in the shaping of the "Medvedev cabinet." The May 6 clashes with the police in the streets of Moscow added more bad press to Putin’s mountain of criticism in the Western media. Were he to show up at the White House, he would run the risk of being asked uncomfortable questions at a Rose Garden news conference. Putin’s irritation with the U.S. government’s support for Russian NGOs active in election monitoring is well known, as is his criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department. The no-show at the media-heavy ritual of the G-8 summit, most of whose leaders congratulated Putin on his reelection only grudgingly or skipped congratulations altogether, thus appears to be a retaliatory strike.
It probably was not. Putin is anything but media-shy. In your face is what he likes. The May 6 Moscow "march of millions" attracted fewer people, despite the fine weather, than the massive February event a month before the presidential election, held in bitter cold. The march had no effect on Putin’s inauguration and was overshadowed on the world scene by the French and Greek elections that same weekend. Western criticisms notwithstanding, Putin feels a winner — and he certainly looked that way on election night. If anything, he likely would enjoy the spectacle of coming back to claim his place among the world’s most powerful leaders, in spite of all the hopes, entreaties, and admonitions that he would not. Doing that in the United States, in particular, would have been a personal triumph and humiliation of his foreign foes.
But what looked initially a technical exercise — forming the new cabinet — appears less of a formality. Moscow is awash with contradictory rumors about who’s in and who’s out, and the general confusion is palpable. The truth is, the Russian government is a coalition, but not of political parties (which are insignificant as far as actual governing goes) as much as of the country’s most powerful clans — a diverse group that ranges from the titans of energy, metals, or other branches of industry to the captains of state-owned enterprises; from Putin’s friends, Boris Yeltsin’s old family, and Medvedev’s classmates to the power players in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other regions.
The cabinet is not so much about policy as such, but about to whom and where money flows. Who controls what is essential to stability within the Russian elite who rule and own Russia at the same time. Arbitrating, brokering, and ultimately deciding the who and what in this situation is not something the new and once-again prime minister, Medvedev, can do alone. In a system where manual control takes the place of institutions, Putin is irreplaceable. The irony of the prime minister being sent on a mission abroad while the president single-handedly pulls the strings and forms his government for him underlines their respective roles — and Medvedev’s puppet status.
Putin’s decision to stay away from Camp David means that he is putting the stability of his power structure above his diplomatic engagements abroad. This is not unusual for politicians. It also suggests, however, that striking the proper balance among the clans has become more difficult. If Putin, in his 13th year in power, is finding this a tricky task, the future of manual control does not seem bright.
Increasingly, Moscow’s elites may think of turning to a more institutionalized method of balancing — something of an agreement on the rules of the game, and an agreement, of course, to police that agreement — so as to prevent any one clan from gaining too much power. When this happens, Russia’s current absolute monarchy will evolve into a limited one. Putin believes, however, that Russia, in his time, can only be held together from above by a popular leader: himself. Call it authoritarianism with the consent of the governed.
Even if Putin’s decision was primarily dictated by domestic concerns, his no-show will have foreign-policy implications. The G-8, which many in the West see as flawed because of Russia’s membership — and perhaps as overtaken by the economic realities of a changing world, better reflected in the G-20 — is also being downgraded in the Kremlin’s eyes. (Throughout the 1990s, the G-7+1 was the formula for Russian participation, but this was changed to the G-8 by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1998.) For Moscow, this is less a symbol of Russia’s "belonging" to the global leadership team and more of a privileged contact zone, giving Russians access to the West, but without an obligation to align with it.
In the G-20, Russians are less conspicuous, but are also less put on the spot. The fact that Putin has decided to attend the G-20 summit in Las Cabos, Mexico, in June does not mean that he values the larger gathering more. Putin, the ultimate transactional politician, frankly hates international jamborees, seeing them as a waste of time. Mexico would have been a perfect destination for Medvedev, if only Putin had been able to travel to Camp David. Instead, now he has to make the trip in order to meet the only person whom he really wanted to talk to on the canceled trip to the United States: Barack Obama.
Much has been made in the media that Putin is now scheduled to visit China before he sees Obama in Mexico. There is less here than meets the eye, however. China and the United States are both hugely important to Russia, and an early visit to China — to attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — makes a lot of sense, especially in view of political developments there ahead of the leadership change this October. Putin is unlikely, however, to build an axis with Beijing to spite Washington. Any remake of the Sino-Soviet alliance would just bring more trouble to the two countries than help advance their common interests, and it would be immensely awkward to operate.
With Putin formally back in the Kremlin, Russia’s foreign policy will probably focus on gaining global expertise for domestic economic modernization, helping large international companies buy into Russia, promoting a form of global governance that would balance the West’s dominance by means of such formal bodies as the U.N. Security Council and such informal ones as the BRICS, and protecting Russian security interests against threats both real and perceived, such as U.S.-NATO missile defense in Europe, by means of a massive rearmament program. Putin needs a meeting with Obama to determine how much alignment on these issues there can be between the two of them — and how much he can get away with. Medvedev, at Camp David, will simply be on a reconnaissance mission.