The Russian president’s early departure from the G20 is almost certain to make it easier for the West to portray Russia as both unwilling and unprepared to negotiate seriously about the future of Ukraine. It may even lead to tougher sanctions from the West.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives for the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Photo: AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin suffered a major diplomatic setback at the G20 summit in Australia, one that he compounded by leaving early, thus appearing to confirm the view of an increasing number of G20 leaders that he is neither prepared to play by the international rules of the game nor negotiate in a serious way with those who do. His early exit from the G20 now gives other leaders the opportunity to talk about developing a broader and tougher front against Russian policy in Ukraine.
And what is even worse from Putin’s perspective, both the pictures of his isolation and the reports about his missing parts of sessions because he needed sleep and then leaving early altogether are going to cast a shadow on the future, making it more likely that other governments when organizing international meetings will be less likely to invite or welcome President Putin. That shadow is likely to remain on him as long as he is president, something that he may not care about but that will have negative consequences for Russia more generally.
All this is a surprise: Putin in the past has demonstrated a remarkable political sense. But it clearly deserted him in this case. Knowing what was likely to happen in Australia, he could easily have found a reason not to go, especially since he has just announced that he will not take part in the Davos meetings. By attending a meeting at which little of substance was at issue – such meetings in general do not take decisions but only ratify accords reached earlier – the Kremlin leader played into the hands of his opponents abroad and, what may be just as important, raised new questions among Russians about his performance.
One can only assume that he did not expect what happened to take place. President Putin has often succeeded in convincing others at such meetings that he is not one of 20 but is equal in importance to all the others and thus must be treated with a deference that no other leader, including the U.S. president, would ever really expect. That did not happen at Brisbane, and it is certain that it will not be true at any meeting in the near and mid-term. As a result, Putin almost certainly will be more reluctant to attend such meetings than he has been.
The obvious question becomes: Why did the Russian president receive the treatment he did and what does it say about the future of Putin’s relationship with the outside world? The answer lies, on the one hand, with the way in which he has acted in Ukraine and on the other hand, with how he has presented what Russia is doing there and the ways in which the West has tried to force him to change course.
Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis at the start of this year, President Putin has not only acted but also spoken in ways which have allowed others to put the worst possible construction on what he plans to do. In the minds of a growing number of Western leaders, he has misled them, to put it in the most polite way, and has articulated arguments that recall some of the worst behavior of any leader in Europe in the twentieth century. Putin has appeared to believe that he is entitled to behave as he wants because the leaders of other countries have misbehaved, but that belief is misplaced because of the way he has justified what he has been doing. Ever fewer Western leaders believe that what Putin is doing is just about Crimea or just about Ukraine, and consequently, they are thinking in terms of a far greater threat.
Because Russia remains an important country and because it has nuclear weapons, no Western leader wants the situation to grow into a more direct military confrontation. The risks of that are simply too great. And because Western leaders want to have good relations with a Russia that plays within the rules, they are reluctant to take any step that could be prove difficult if not impossible to reverse if Moscow ever changes course. As a result, the Western countries have deployed two tools: increasingly tough sanctions and increasingly critical comments about what Russia and Putin are doing.
It is no accident that these two things came together in Brisbane: The G20 is after all an organization of the planet’s largest economies and so talking about using economic leverage is natural, and meetings of the group are the occasion for leaders to speak with each other and to speak out on things of concern to themselves and their countries. By attending and then leaving in the face of criticism, Putin set the stage for more and tougher sanctions and more and tougher criticism by Western leaders of what he is doing.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
Read another opinion: What the G20 Summit means for Russia and Ukraine