The G7 Failed to Address Russia Because Russia Was Missing
The last G7 summit in Schloss Elmau was hailed a success for tackling climate change, but it cannot claim the same glory for its approach to Russia. Unceremoniously uninvited and shamed out of the golden circle of global leaders, Russia saw itself, once again, excluded from former status. Evidently, there are many things to be said about Russia’s recent pedigree of international trouble stimulation and dubious interpretations of human rights. From the illegal annexation of Crimea to instigating violence in Eastern Ukraine and deploying armed personnel, Russia has recently, and rightfully so, made the black list of most Western states. For one, the situation in Ukraine, whatever its cause and whoever the belligerent actors involved, has driven Europe to the brink of forgotten instability and division. In this whole conflict, there has been a plethora of negotiations, sanctions, threats, human right breaches and attempts at peace-making, and some have been more visible, and some less. However, uninviting Russia from a summit such as G7 reveals two facts: that global leaders systematically refuse to understand how Russia operates, and that Germany has changed geopolitical and diplomatic course. The latter may prove decisive in the future development of the Ukraine crisis.
The first point mentioned above, neglecting to understand Russian leadership’s psyche, is one that may be too esoteric, may be too historical, but is also one of crucial importance. It takes a fugitive look into recent history books to understand what psychological impact the dismantling of the Soviet Union had on its prime nation. Within two-three years of the August coup 1991, Russia saw itself deprived of all satellite states, the ruble and with it, the whole economy, collapsing into dust, and the civil society in an anarchical state. On top of domestic disaster and structural weakness, Russia was faced with an unprecedented race towards its borders from the West – gradual NATO and European Union memberships and partnership agreements with former USSR members and Warsaw Pact satellite states led the Russian leadership to believe its interest had become irrelevant to Western leaders. The sentiment of impotence obviously bruised the ego of a nation which had been, in one shape or another, a growing empire for over 500 years (Ivan the Terrible started expanding territorially in the second half of the 15th century). An even more distant look back into Russian history reveals that its empires, as different in ideology as can be, had certain similarities diagnostic for the overall Russian mentality – an unequalled sense of patriotism and self-sacrifice, attention to appearances and an almost megalomaniac tendency towards grandeur. Whether it was the notorious luxury of the Romanovs, the richness of imperial cities, or the imposing Soviet exhibitions of power, marches and parades, Russia has always closely watched appearances. It comes hence to no surprise that uninviting Russia from the G7 summit hit a particular nerve – that of not being among the circle of important states. Less so than denying a platform of debate and negotiations, the G7 leaders neglected the alienating impact. Or, maybe even more plausibly, they took it into full consideration and purposefully insulted – hardly an attempt to continue diplomatic mediation. In case the Western leaders aimed at upsetting Putin and showing him what he is worth, they succeeded. However, they probably fail to understand the long-term damage such demonstrative actions trigger. In this case, Russia will drift off even farther from any type of compromise and eventual rapprochement, and, as will be argued below, Putin is reinforced in his rhetoric about Western petty hostility.
In all of this, one actor slowly changed its attitude. Traditionally, Germany has been, since the fall of the Soviet Union, and strongly so since the red-green coalition in 1998, a vocal advocate of Russia. In 2008, when Russia legitimized an intervention on Georgian soil with the protection of nationals abroad and stirred a conflict of sizeable proportions, Germany took a Russia-friendly stance by blocking Georgia’s accession to NATO. The 2000s overall marked a decade of flourishing economic and cultural exchanges between Germany and Russia. Especially under the tutelage of SPD-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Germany opened to Russian gas and oil companies, increasing the dependency on Russian energy exports through the North Stream pipeline. Even after the first sparks of unrest ignited in Ukraine in 2013, Germany continued playing the mediator between an increasingly aggressive Russia and furious opponents, such as the United States, Poland or the Baltic States. SPD-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was most vocal in asking for a peaceful solution through negotiations, without completely alienating Russia. In doing so, he did not only channel the interests of German industries, but also a general line of German administrations, regardless of couleur. Given this particular role Germany played, it is even more surprising how the tables have turned in 2015. With no high-ranking delegation at the Victory Day parade in Moscow in May, Germany surprised by taking an unprecedented harsh stance – the patience ended. Not inviting Russia to participate at the G7 summit on German soil which discussed the very issue of Russian involvement in Ukraine marked a turning point and Germany’s definitive ennui with negotiations.
These developments are worrisome for several reasons. Firstly, it shows that Western states continue a long-standing course of hitting Russia in their most vulnerable spots. Contrary to popular belief here, economic sanctions are not as lethal a blow to Putin – Russians are resilient to hardship, to which Putin himself is mostly unaccountable. Furthermore, sanctions cannot be maintained permanently, as the West is dependent on Russia for conflict resolution in several parts of the world. The soft spot is when pride is hurt and Russia’s grandeur ridiculed. What the absence from the Victory Day parade and the exclusion from the G7 summit do is burning the few remaining bridges. Another effect will be supporting Putin’s rhetorical argument – that the West ignores and spites Russian interests. That Russian willingness to discuss is being deterred. And that the West continues its course of cornering the ailing nation and wrongly portraying it as a threat.
As Germany departs from the role of mediator and isolates Russia, the two opposing trenches define in shape, and solidify the Ukraine conflict, making the outlook for resolution even grimmer than before.
Photo credit: Number 10 (Creative Commons).