June 7, 2014
Domestic unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 resulted in Russia’s de facto expulsion from the Group of 8, in what became one of the first political fallouts of the crisis. What made the event even more extraordinary was that it occurred as Russia held the group’s rotating presidency and was preparing to host this year’s G8 summit in the resort city of Sochi. On June 4-5, instead of traveling to Sochi, the G7 leaders met in Brussels without Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Ukraine and potential next steps toward Russia.
On Friday, June 6, the day after what would have been the conclusion of the Russian G8 summit, the Center on Global Interests launched its newest report—“Back to the G7: Russia’s Expulsion from the G8 and the End of the Post-Cold War World.”
In a panel discussion led by E. Wayne Merry, Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of the report, four experts considered the reasons for the G8’s failure and offered contrasting opinions on the possible resurrection of the group. In his report, Merry argues that the initial goals of the G8 and the conditions of Russia’s membership prevented its full integration into the body, setting an early stage for Russia’s eventual departure. This departure, he says, marks the end of the rapprochement between Russia and the West that, until recent events, had characterized much of the last 25 years.
Merry was joined by Ambassador Richard Burt, Managing Director for Europe, Russia and Eurasia at McLarty Associates and a board member at CGI, who previously served as Chief Nuclear Arms Negotiator under George H. W. Bush; and Dr. Andrei Illarionov, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Chief Economic Adviser to President Vladimir Putin, as well as a former Russian representative to the G8. Dr. Nikolai Zlobin, founder and President of the Center on Global Interests, moderated the discussion.
The highlights of the talk are summarized below:
Did Russia fail the G8—or did the G8 fail Russia?
E. Wayne Merry: The G8 was a unique institutional framework – high-level but sized to work – that could have increased the dialogue between Western powers and Russia, and prevented blundering EU policies. However, the West saw the G8 as a forum for Russia to change itself rather than as one of mutual accommodation, which is necessary in real diplomacy. This has now been reflected in the Ukraine crisis. It is indisputable that the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine presented an economic threat to Russia’s trade with that country, and it was perceived as such in Moscow. But there was very little sense that the EU capitals understood this until it was too late.
Richard Burt: Russia’s expulsion from the G8 is a good opportunity to consider this strange institution. The original G7 was initiated by France in the 1970s for a private and candid discussion among leading Western powers about the global economy. Over time, as politicians preferred not to talk about the economy, the organization took on a political tone. It also became an outward-focused exercise, seeking to reach consensus on external issues, like international aid to Africa, rather than seeking consensus on the internal issues of the member-states. The key assumption was that the G8 would be an incentive for Russia to change, and a Western trajectory for Russia was assumed. This was enormously short-sighted.
Andrei Illarionov: I disagree with the idea that the G8 somehow failed Russia. The G8 was always intended to address international issues and develop a common position among leading Western states. It was not a forum for discussing each country’s national interests, so it did not fail Russia in that regard. Over time, Russia should have graduated past the stage of bringing its own problems to the other G8 members.
However, for much of its G8 membership, Russia was treated as less than a full member. Officially Russia joined the G8 in 1997, but in fact it had a “G7+1” status until 2002. The group is really two clubs, both called the G8: the club of state leaders, and the club of finance ministers and representatives of state banks, the IMF and the World Bank. It is the second club that is the most important, and the one from which Russia was largely excluded, partly due to a lack of desire on the Russian side to implement necessary economic reforms.
On whether Russia can be considered “Western”
Merry: Russia’s actions over the past six months have been catastrophic, and most of all for Russia itself. Russia is turning in on itself and showing a disturbing reliance on ethno-confessional terms—rather than security, economics or politics—to justify its actions. This is a huge step backward and a worrisome trend for the country, both externally and internally.
Burt: “The West” is not a geographical location, but a common set of lessons learned after World War II and codified in the post-WWII international institutions. Putin’s message throughout the Ukraine crisis has been that Russia does not belong to the West, that its culture and values are fundamentally not Western—a sort of Russian exceptionalism. But although Putin says this, I’m not sure it’s true. Many Russians don’t like this anti-West message. The question is whether the next generation of Russians will accept or challenge Putin and his anti-Western views.
Illarionov: We have to remember that countries that are currently in the G8 have not always acted in a “Western” fashion. Two examples are Nazi Germany and militarized Japan, which at one point pursued policies that could not exactly be considered “Western” or “European.” But today, Germany is largely seen as the leader of the European community. The idea of being Western isn’t static, but depends on the policy approach of a given regime at a particular time. As in Nazi Germany, the regime can also effectively use propaganda to sway the population into adopting non-European values. But after that regime is removed and a policy shift occurs, we may see the restoration of that country’s “Western” image.
Nikolai Zlobin: Putin has been trying to build his vision of a new Russia that is no longer “post-Cold War,” but a modern country in its own right. The main component of this is a value system that is fundamentally Russian, drawing on centuries of Russian history long predating the Cold War. These values are not anti-Europe, but fundamentally separate from it. In essence, Putin is building a new Iron Curtain of values between Russia and the West.
Putin has even gone a step further to say that the old notion of “European values” no longer exists because Europe has transformed so radically from what it used to be. In fact, he is arguing that Russia, by upholding traditional, conservative values, has become the new Europe. It may sound crazy, but it’s an idea that has been developed into a sophisticated, deeply historical argument that has become very persuasive and popular in Russia. Western policymakers need to take this development seriously.
Will the G8 make a comeback?
Merry: After Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the G8 is absolutely dead as a political forum. For one, the United States and UK will not participate alongside Russia unless they see a complete reversal of its policy in Ukraine. That means the full restoration of Crimea—and that is definitely not going to happen.
Looking ahead beyond the U.S. midterms and presidential election, the new administration is probably not going to jump at the idea of improving relations with Russia, either. The experience of the Obama administration has made this effort highly unpopular from the political perspective.
Illarionov: The G8 is not dead and may very well meet again in 2015, when Germany hosts the next summit. We have to realize that today’s world really is a new one. For example, when Russia invaded Finland [in 1939], the international response was immediate and harsh: Russia was expelled from the League of Nations within two weeks, without even having annexed any territory. Compare that to the international response to the Ukraine crisis. Russia was suspended from the G8, but not from the United Nations; it has only been punished with small-scale sanctions, and the additional sanctions that have been threatened will probably never materialize.
This weak response has validated Putin’s conviction that the West is fundamentally split between “Continental Europe”—which has tried to minimize the political fallout over Ukraine—and the “Anglo-Saxon world,” which has pursued a more aggressive response to Russia. Next year, if Putin finds himself once again seated at the G8 table in Germany, in Continental Europe, he will see it as a final confirmation of this idea.