Putin shuns G8, shows direction of Russian foreign policy

Moscow News

May 11, 2012 Friday

President Vladimir Putin appeared to herald in a new era for Russia’s relations with the world this week by shunning an invitation to attend a forthcoming G8 summit in the United States just days after his inauguration.

Putin, who returned to the presidency Monday after a four year stint as prime minister, said he would send newly-appointed Prime Minister Medvedev in his place, claiming in a telephone conversation with the White House that he himself was too busy choosing the new cabinet.

The Russian president brushed aside the implications of being the first president not to attend such a high profile summit by saying that he will meet U.S. President Barack Obama for bilateral talks at the G20 summit in Mexico next month.

Analysts say Putin’s excuses look suspicious. Considering the well-planned structure of the Kremlin hierarchy, it is unlikely that Putin has not yet decided who will be in the new cabinet. Officially, the decision should be the prime minister’s, not the president’s.

They say it is more likely that Putin is starting his extended six year term in office as he means to go on – by opening and closing doors to the West at his own will.

‘Putin’s absence [at the G8] will not go unnoticed. Russia being represented by Medvedev signals that Putin is not very keen to take part in international forums,’ Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst at IHS Global Insight told The Moscow News in an emailed comment ‘Putin has shown his preference for bilateral relations.’

In accordance with this, Putin’s first few months as president will be studded with bilateral talks – first with China, which he will visit early next month, and later with Brazil and Germany.

The move, analysts say, is also an indication of where Putin’s foreign policy priorities lie. After a few marginal steps forward during the ‘reset’ at the beginning of Medvedev’s presidency, relations between Russia and the United States have suffered setbacks in recent months.

The former Cold War foes have argued over U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe, and on Syria, where Russia has obstinately refused to back a string of UN resolutions. These arguments have occurred against the backdrop of Russia’s tumultuous election period, in which Putin made good use of his anti-America card to try to win back support from disgruntled voters.

‘While the reset had tangible achievements, the agenda of relations did not intensify since it lacks a solid foundation, such as mutual trust, or even mutual confidence,’ said Maria Lipman, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. ‘Having a visit to the United States just days after the inauguration as his first foreign visit is at variance with the level of relations at this point. Putin wants to have China as his first stop.’

If this is the case, Putin’s decision not to attend next week’s summit is likely to make the relationship with the U.S. worse.

Although the White House insisted it wasn’t disappointed, sources close to the U.S. administration told Kommersant that Obama had been looking forward to his meeting with Putin and had even changed the location of the event according the Russia’s wishes.

Rumors abounded Friday that Obama may be plotting a retaliatory act by shunning a lavish APEC summit which Russia is due to host in September. Even before this week’s events, the Obama administration said he may not attend, due to the summit’s proximity to the U.S. presidential elections.

Alexander Rahr, Russia analyst at the German Council of Foreign Relations, told The Moscow News that while Putin’s refusal to attend the summit is significant, it is too early to tell how the new president will play the foreign policy card over the next six years.

‘I think the main reason Putin decided not to attend the summit was that he doesn’t want to start his presidency with a defeat, which the crash of a Russian-made plane in Indonesia this week evidently was,’ Rahr said. ‘The real indicator of how Russian foreign policy will pan out will be the atmosphere after Putin meets Obama at the G20 next month.’

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