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.
Of course, continuous protests in Moscow also could have curbed Putin's desire to leave the Kremlin walls, lest his departure send a wrong message. It is hard to leave the farm, especially if the boss has to appoint the cabinet himself. He may also remember the palace coup against Nikita Khrushchev while the latter vacationed in the fall of 1964.
The December 2011 Duma elections' unflattering assessment by international and domestic monitors, criticism of the fairness of the March 2012 elections, and detention and sentencing of opposition figures such as Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, as well as over four hundred demonstrations, also could result in unpleasant questions at the summit by Western media and attending world leaders.
There is yet another reason for Putin's absence. Obama's inability to make foreign policy commitments during the election period might have further eroded the rationale for Putin to hobnob with his American colleague. Obama himself was caught explaining his current inflexibility to then president Medvedev in the open-microphone incident at the recent Seoul nuclear summit.
It helps that Medvedev and Obama developed cordial personal ties, eating burgers together in the DC suburbs last summer, which Obama does not have with Putin. Even though Obama might be just as happy to see Medvedev at the summit, Putin's moves may still provoke consternation in the White House.
For Washington, Putin's doubts about the G-8's capacity to accomplish anything significant and his close relations with China should turn on the red light with regards to the hallowed U.S.-Russian "reset" policy. The Russian president seeking concessions from Obama on the ballistic-missile-defense issue is not what the Obama reelection campaign wants to hear. White House rhetoric notwithstanding, the Russian president's refusal to come to Camp David may signal that the once-celebrated "reset" might be in trouble.
Putin made no attempt to hide his dissatisfaction when U.S. national-security advisor Tom Donilon was in Moscow, bringing with him Obama's multipage memo to Putin about deepening U.S.-Russian ties. Putin said Russia would consider this path only if the United States views Russia as an equal partner. First, Putin said, Washington should provide written guarantees that U.S. missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe are not aimed at Russia. Since few expect the United States to satisfy Russia on this, Putin's absence from the summit is hardly surprising.
Either way, Putin's decision to stay home is bad news for the "reset" and for Obama. While there are many issues that require cooperation between Washington and Moscow--including nonproliferation, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Russia's WTO entrance-- boycotting the summit is stressing the negative. And it could be a sign of worse things to come.