Russia, Western Summits: No Love Lost

International summits this week are expected to touch on problems dealing with Moscow, including the NATO Western military alliance and the G-7 meeting of developed nations. Neither embraces Russia as a member.

NATO leaders meet May 25 in Brussels, while the G-7 holds talks in Sicily a day later. U.S. President Donald Trump is attending both meetings. He is not expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin until the July 7 G-20 meeting in Hamburg.

While Moscow has never applied to join NATO and often depicts the alliance as its adversary, its leaders have over the years touched on the idea of Russia one day becoming a member.

“It was half-serious,” said the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexander Baunov. “… because all other members of NATO, even the major economic powers in military aspect, are under American leadership. It’s quite difficult to imagine psychologically and practically that Russian military forces, that Russia as a military power, would be just a minor player under the command of American generals.”

The Kremlin has painted NATO as “moving eastward,” intent on surrounding Russia for possible aggression. To ease mistrust and build cooperation, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act established regular meetings between the two sides through the NATO-Russia Council, or NRC.

Russia suspended

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, NATO suspended cooperation with Russia, but the NRC still meets a few times a year.

The G-8 also suspended Russia, changing the group’s name back to G-7 for the first time since 1998. Russia’s ejection came just two months before it was to host a G-8 summit.

“Of course it is a failure for Russian leadership, because in the long run it was one of the major priorities for Russian elite to be accepted as equals, well, as part of equal member[ship] of the international elite,” said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies and Social Movements.

Russia was G-8 outsider

The G-8 was more of a symbolic and prestigious gathering than one aimed at any negotiating or decision-making, say analysts, as a Western-oriented, liberal-democratic consensus is usually reached before any summit takes place.

“At [the] G-8, there was no possibility [for Russia] to make alliances,” said Baunov. “It was only [the] Western alliance of the G-7 and Russia.” Besides the United States, the other members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain.

Russia’s G-8 membership was seen to advance Boris Yeltsin’s choice of pursuing democracy and a market-based economy, but was always tenuous, Baunov said. “Almost every year or every second year, there was a subject or topic that allowed to the Western media, the politicians, the public opinion, to put under question Russian membership in the G-8, showing basically that it’s not a democracy so what’s this country doing in the club.”

Russia’s G-20 strategy?

Russian officials in January said Moscow had no intention of re-joining and its priority is the G-20.

Russia is more comfortable with the G-20’s diverse format where there is no consensus and Moscow is not the least democratic or free member of the club, as it was with the G-8, says Baunov. “So, you’re not the only bad among good,” he said. “There’s Turkey, there’s China. There are different, more problematic countries.”

Kagarlitsky says the Kremlin struggles with setting goals and objectives.

“The main problem is what is Russia going to do within these structures,” he said. “And, well, that was always the biggest failure for Russian diplomacy because they didn’t have a strategy, they didn’t have a list of priorities to achieve. And, in that sense, they were much weaker than, say, Brazil or China or India or even South Africa.”

Putin-Trump meeting

Analysts say little is expected to come from the Trump-Putin meeting at the July G-20 summit.

“Of course, at some point there was a tremendous illusion among Russian elites, because they thought that Trump was going to change totally the relationship between Russia and the West,” Kagarlitsky said. “And, it didn’t happen and it’s not going to happen.”

Analysts say the ongoing investigations into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia have made it very difficult for the U.S. president to negotiate with Putin. He’s not free to offer something without being heavily blamed for it, says Baunov, “So, for me, it can be only the opportunity to establish real, personal relations.”

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