The Russian leader's decision not to attend the major diplomatic event could be a bad sign for Obama's "reset."
During a telephone conversation with Barack Obama last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin cited the need to complete formation of a new cabinet of ministers to excuse himself from attending the Group of Eight summit at Camp David. It's hard to see his refusal to participate in the world's most prestigious meeting as anything but a rolling back of the "reset." Putin's gesture exposes not only his deep dislike of fancy conferences lacking substance but also his uneasiness about relations with the United States.
The White House repeatedly invited Putin for a visit during his prime ministership. Last summer, a high-ranking official told me that after an invitation by the president and vice president, the Obama administration was working out the details of Putin's visit to America. But he did not come.
Some expected to see Putin at the NATO Chicago summit, scheduled for May 20-21, but he has refused, to the consternation of the NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. President Obama even moved the location of the G-8 summit to Camp David (from Chicago, where it had been planned alongside the NATO summit) to avoid putting the Russian President in an awkward situation. But Putin still is not coming.
When Obama called to congratulate his Russian counterpart on his new post, Putin regretfully informed the American president that he would be unable to attend the G-8 meeting in Camp David but that Dmitri Medvedev, his sidekick, would replace him. The explanation was that the urgent pressure to form a new cabinet makes it impossible for him to leave Russia.
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Few buy the diplomatic excuses. First, the fact that the new premier will be absent from the country during his cabinet formation suggests Putin's enduring power and Medvedev's irrelevance. Secondly, as Medvedev himself announced in September 2011, the power swap between the two politicians was preplanned, and Putin probably figured out the composition of the new government long before the inauguration.
Now, it turns out that the Russian president's first state visit will be to China. That is hardly surprising, given Putin's emphasis on developing a de facto alliance with the rising giant. His further travel is likely to be to former Soviet CIS states and Germany, providing a clear indication of Russia's foreign-policy priorities. My guess is that Putin wants to emphasize relations with Beijing and does not want to waste time on pomp and ceremony. Medvedev can easily substitute for him at the ceremonial affairs, but when it comes to serious business--such as huge oil and gas deals--Putin's presence is unavoidable.