G8 Summit: Putin Against the West

June 19, 2013
Peter Morrison/AP

On June 17, the G8 Summit was held in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, but President Putin held a series of bilateral meetings in advance, including his first meeting since June 2012 with US President Barack Obama. A month before, the presidents had exchanged messages; diplomats of both countries had said that at this meeting the whole agenda of relations would be discussed, including Obama’s participation in the G20 summit in St. Petersburg – Putin has placed special significance on this meeting. But before the meeting, Yury Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy aide, declined to forecast the outcome since too much time was to be taken in discussion of the situation in Syria.

The return of Putin to the G8 (he delegated Dmitry Medvedev to attend the previous summit) may aggravate relations. The general discussion of the Syrian issue was to take place at a working lunch on Tuesday, 18 June, and according to Ushakov’s information, the host of the summit, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, proposed that Putin and Obama begin the discussion. “The Syria issue may eat up half the lunch,” Ushakov noted.

Syria was the main topic of talks 16 June between Cameron and Putin in London. The task was to convince Putin to help bring about a peaceful settlement, said Cameron; everyone agrees that this is necessary, but the disagreement comes in how to achieve it.
In the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian conflict, attempts to convince Russia of the need to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the actions of Bashar Assad’s regime have not yielded any results. The West hasn’t been able to get Moscow not to fulfill its arms contract with Damascus, either.

Putin’s talks with Western leaders in the last year have ended not only with wording about disagreements in approaches, but declarations of the need for a peaceful resolution. Only the public has publicly opposed Moscow’s positions, which complicated the speeches of Putin in Germany and the Netherlands during his April tour.

Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have repeatedly spoken about the need to prevent a repetition in Syria of the Iraq experience and the Libyan scenario and had indicated that the delivery of Russian armaments did not contradict international norms, but the resolution of the Syrian crisis was possible only through negotiations, for which an international conference was convened jointly with the USA.

On the eve of the summit, the situation around Syria worsened; Ben Rhodes, Obama’s advisor for national security, stated that the US government had obtained information about the use of chemical weapons by Assad – sarin gas, of which 100-150 victims had become victims. The US was forced to begin delivery of weapons to the rebels, said Rhodes. The information provided by the Americans did not look convincing, it is even difficult to call it “facts,” said Ushakov in response.

Putin wound up being one against seven at the G8: he had to steel himself psychologically for this, and it was extremely important to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s in order to show that Russia wouldn’t be a second wingman and would dictate its own agenda, said Nikolai Zlobin president of the Washington Center for Global Interests. While the chair of the G8 will pass to Russia, the conversation has to be conducted in such a way that it does not provoke Obama’s refusal to take part in the G20 summit.

During the last international crises, when the positions of Russia and the West were sharply divergent (the war with Georgia in 2008 and the Libya operation in 2011), Putin was not president, but actively took part in all the decisions. At the height of the Georgian crisis, he received President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at his residence, and Sarkozy served as a mediator, Masha Lipman, an analyst for the Carnegie Center recalled.

Putin has encountered a real lack of understanding of the Russian approach, says political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, but his position does not change from that; in the two-and-a-half years of conflict, there have been no signs at all of that, and the result of the summit will be that Putin will put a conditional veto on all the West’s initiatives. Yet the differences over Syria, even if severe, will not lead to a serious rift with the West; Obama will come in any event [to the G20]. Relations, of course will not improve, but Syria is not the issue which can derail relations; it is not a conflict of “Russia versus the West” or “Russia versus the USA,” Lukyanov summarized.

Putin is becoming more and more alien to the West, and his isolationism is growing, notes political analyst Boris Makarenko. With the acceptance of Russia into the G8, the effectiveness of the association has become somewhat reduced, but the question of Russia’s membership in the club will not be raised for a long time to come, he concluded.