Home/Daniel Larison/Putin and the So-Called G-8 Summit “Snub”

Putin and the So-Called G-8 Summit “Snub”

Dmitri Trenin attributes Putin’s recent decision not to attend the G-8 summit at Camp David to domestic political concerns:

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.

This seems to confirm the view that the system Putin has created is not one that he is able to entrust to the management of anyone else. Nikolas Gvosdev explained a few weeks ago that the “Putin system continues to depend on Putin personally for it to be able to function.” The decision to remain in Russia was a very blunt admission that the balancing of domestic political interests required Putin’s personal supervision.

Viewed this way, it makes sense that the need for political stability at home would trump a G-8 summit, especially when Obama had conveyed the message to Putin that he could expect no progress on any major issues before the election. All states have domestic politics, whether or not their political systems are open and pluralistic, and it isn’t entirely surprising that these are taking precedence for Putin. There are other factors that make it less worth Putin’s while to attend. As Trenin says elsewhere, Putin doesn’t have the same familiar European partners at the meeting that he has had in the past (e.g., Berlusconi, Schroeder, etc.):

For reasons both political and personal, Putin will be far more comfortable at the broader G20 than the mostly Western G8, where he feels out of place, like “a white crow”, Trenin said.

However, Trenin makes clear in his article that Putin isn’t particularly interested in the G-20 meeting in itself, but will go to it because it will afford him an opportunity to meet with Obama:

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 [bold mine-DL]. 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.

As eager as some Western media outlets were to jump on the news of Putin’s “snub” as proof that Putin is not interested in a constructive relationship with the U.S., it would appear that this isn’t what the summit decision means at all.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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