MOSCOW (Reuters) – Of all the signals and symbols that shape Russian foreign policy, this one seemed particularly blunt: Vladimir Putin, in one of the first decisions of his new presidency, will shun a Group of Eight summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The May 18-19 visit was to have been Putin’s first foreign trip since he returned to the Kremlin on Monday, a chance to begin putting U.S. ties back on track after a growth in tension over missile defence, Syria and Russia’s presidential campaign.
Instead, Putin is sending his junior partner, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – and a message that as long as he is in charge, Russia will not bend to Washington’s will when its interests are at stake.
“I think the signal he wants to send to America … is that agreements with America will be built on a balance of the strategic interests of America and Russia,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank. “Russia will not make any unilateral concessions.”
It is a message Putin has repeated, from an inauguration-day decree on Monday in which he said Russia would demand U.S. respect to a warning on Wednesday against modern-day violations of sovereignty, delivered before tanks and missiles trundled across Red Square to mark the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
More starkly, the military chief of staff said last week that Russia could launch pre-emptive strikes against future NATO missile defence facilities in Europe if sufficiently threatened.
The warning indicated Putin will hold out U.S. plans for an anti-missile shield as a big barrier to better relations and, specifically, to Kremlin approval of deeper nuclear arms cuts.
Washington says the shield is meant to counter a potential threat from Iran and poses no risk to Russia. Moscow maintains that it could give the West the capability to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, upsetting the strategic equilibrium between the former Cold War foes.
Putin has made clear Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, will seek to undercut U.S. global might and oppose what he says is unjustified, destabilising U.S.-orchestrated interference in the affairs of sovereign states, including Syria and Russia itself.
The public reason for Putin’s decision to skip the G8 summit was the need to focus on appointing a new cabinet.
With liberal and conservatives close to the Kremlin wrangling over cabinet posts and policy direction, Putin – by staying home – may be eager to pose for a domestic audiences and show he is not weakened by the biggest protests of his 12 years as Russia’s paramount political leader.
“Foreign policy … will play the role of a servant to Putin’s domestic agenda,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an author and expert on Putin. “And his main goal domestically is to preserve the status quo and survive.”
After the anti-American atmosphere that prevailed during his presidential campaign, in which Putin accused the United States of stirring up protests, it might look strange to his supporters to make Washington his first foreign destination.
Relations have been strained by the treatment of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, architect of Obama’s “reset” of Russian ties, who has been portrayed by Russian media as a troublemaker out to incite revolution.
Instead, Putin’s first trip abroad could be to China in early June, symbolising that he is looking eastward – to the former Soviet states of Central Asia and beyond.
His first meeting with Obama as president is likely to come on neutral territory in Mexico, where the Group of 20 nations gathers in June.
For reasons both political and personal, Putin will be far more comfortable at the broader G20 than the mostly Western G8, where he feels out of place, like “a white crow”, Trenin said.
His big-power friends from his previous presidency from 2000 to 2008 – France’s Jacques Chirac, Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian leader who attended his inauguration on Monday – are gone.
Obama and the rest will instead once again meet Medvedev, who presented a warmer face to the West in his 2008-12 presidency and clicked with Obama, from their signing of the 2010 nuclear arms limitation treaty known as New START to chummy talk at a “cheeseburger summit” that same year.
By contrast, Obama’s breakfast meeting with Putin at his residence outside Moscow in 2009 featured a monologue in which the then-Russian prime minister listed his complaints about the United States at length.
While it seems like a serious snub, the last-minute substitution of Medvedev for the G8 meeting could have an upside for Obama, whose likely Republican opponent in the November election has said he is nowhere near tough enough on Russia.
The United States has criticised the Kremlin over the detentions and violence against Russians protesting at Putin’s return to the presidency, and two prominent opposition leaders will still be in jail when the G8 meets.
Obama “has no need to be photographed with Putin right now – as it is, the Republicans criticise him as a Russian puppet. So in this case it happens to suit everybody,” Fyodor Lukyanov, edit of Russia in Global Affairs, said of Putin’s decision.
“It is a strange, unusual step (to avoid the G8 summit), however – but Putin is a master of such steps. We’ll get used to it.”
(Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Mark Heinrich)