This year’s G7 summit, held in Quebec, Canada, on June 8–9, was overcome by seemingly unprecedented controversies even before United States President Donald Trump suggested bringing Russia back into this elite club of the world’s largest liberal-democratic economies. Only the newly appointed Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte may have found this idea worth contemplating (see EDM, June 6). The other five members did not even bother marshalling arguments against this impromptu proposal, because it is too obvious that Russia, with its authoritarian rule and aggressive behavior, cannot possibly belong to this group of democratic states (Newsru.com, June 8). Moscow was invited into the G7 in 1997, but was suspended from participation in the reformatted G8 in 2014, after its invasion of Ukraine. The list of candidates for the G7’s theoretical enlargement could perhaps include Australia, South Korea or India, but the prime minister of the latter was actually busy attending the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in Qingdao, China. This club used to bring together Russia, China, and four Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Last year, however, India and Pakistan were admitted as full members, while Iran remains an observer.
The coincidence of these two parallel gatherings demonstratively disproves Trump’s main reason for inviting Russia back—“because we have a world to run.” At present, the disunited Western democracies cannot pretend to set the rules for the disorderly rest of the world (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 9). Three dramatic US withdrawals—from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the commitment to free trade—executed by the Trump administration in the year since the previous G7 summit, in Sicily, have severely undermined the collective West’s ability to lead in global affairs (RIA Novosti, June 9). Quite possibly, Trump surprised his partners with the Russia proposal simply to shift attention away from the issue of US tariffs on steel and aluminum. Such tumultuous trade policy has grown into a major irritant in relations with allies, including Canada and France, which had earlier been ready to go a long mile to build rapport with the maverick US president (Forbes.ru, June 8). Yet, at the same time, it may have, on some level, been an attempt to remind Moscow where it used to belong and could still return if it was willing to put in the effort at self-reinvention.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin was given an extra-friendly welcome in Beijing (Kommersant, June 9). However, too many sights likely remind him of how fast China is building its power and how deep Russia’s dependency is growing. Overall, he looked much more comfortable in Vienna, Austria, where he traveled a couple of days prior to the trip to China (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 7). The ritualized show of respect toward Putin in China camouflaged an actual lack thereof; but in Europe there is still plenty of genuine interest in and awe of Russia’s power—corrupt as it is. The Russian head of state recently had meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but the one he is really keen to have is with Trump. And the Kremlin has repeatedly signaled its readiness to make haste with the preparations (RIA Novosti, June 9).
Europeans are anxious about this prospect because it is unclear what Putin might put on the table besides compliments on Trump’s ability to listen and respond (TASS, June 8). The two leaders will almost certainly ignore such “mundane” matters as climate change or gender equality; their views on migration are also quite far apart; and the joint counter-terrorism agenda is effectively exhausted. Syria certainly makes for an important topic, and it is significant that General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, focused on it at their recent meeting in Helsinki, Finland (TASS, June 8). This de-confliction is crucial for preventing another direct clash between US and Russian forces, like the one in February (see EDM, February 15, 20)—confirmed by Trump but denied by Putin, who keeps praising the “noble mission” of the Russian intervention (RIA Novosti, June 7). Yet, given the depth of disagreements on the Iran issue, it is difficult to see how the US-Russian discussions on Syria could progress beyond de-confliction talks. Knowing how crucially important the meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has become to Trump, Moscow has tried hard to boost its profile in de-nuclearization diplomacy. But Russia’s ability to make a difference on the Korean peninsula remains miniscule (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 1).
This leaves the traditional area of arms control as the main subject of possible high-level bilateral discussions, and there is certainly a rich menu of problems in this dangerously neglected field (Novaya Gazeta, June 8). One of the easiest questions to resolve could be the prolongation of the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2021; though, Trump may be seriously reluctant to embrace this key element of former President Barack Obama’s legacy. Separately, Russia is in violation of the Cold War–era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, while simultaneously accusing the US of technical violations. Trump’s instructions to prepare a new set of sanctions targeting specifically Russia’s INF non-compliance may actually help to focus political attention on breaking this deadlock (Vedomosti, May 17). The brisk development of new technologies in their nuclear arsenals, of course, seriously hampers negotiation efforts. And both Trump and Putin would presumably prefer to achieve a sensational breakthrough without compromising on any matters of prestige.
Russian officials have expressed skepticism about the idea of returning to the G8 format, knowing full well that a key condition for such rehabilitation is the cessation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which, for Putin, is out of the question. Trump probably had not meant to remind everyone of the reason for Moscow’s expulsion; but his loose remark drew international attention back to the ongoing war in Donbas, whereas domestic attention in Russia inevitably refocused on the costs and consequences of this deadlocked aggression (Rosbalt, June 8). Putin keeps trying to talk Russia’s economy into revival, but stagnation remains the best the country can hope for. Animated discussions on new sources of growth—like those that dominate various international fora, including the G7 and the SCO—are foreign to the Kremlin. For Russia, shaking off the depressing downturn of Putinism will always be a possibility, however remote. But if it occurs, it will undoubtedly be sudden.