Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision not to attend the G-8 summit and send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a stand-in has been seen by many as a bold snub to Washington and has raised important questions about the Russian leader's motivations. Beyond that looms the larger, and much more important, question about the future of Russia's foreign policy and its relations with the West. What if Putin's real motives, however, are exactly as advertised by his Kremlin aides -- that he needs to focus on forming a new government at home? If that's true, it offers a remarkable insight into the process of power balancing among the clans that make up Russia's cabinet. Either way, it's a hell of a way to begin a new term.
Unlike Putin and Medvedev's announcement last September that they had long planned to swap places, the G-8 decision must have been made only in the last few days. When Putin announced that he would not attend the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago, he did confirm for the May 18-19 G-8 summit, which was then moved to Camp David by Barack Obama's administration. Until early May, U.S. and Russian diplomats were working hard on the Obama-Putin meeting to be held at the White House on the margins of the G-8 summit. Putin's public statements on the eve of his May 7 inauguration indicated his willingness to work with the United States on matters of mutual interest and even "go really far" in that direction, as his foreign-policy aide put it. For that, of course, Putin requires a working personal relationship with Obama, the current and likely future president of the United States. Snubbing him would make no sense.
So, something must have happened quite recently to make Putin change his mind. Of recent developments, two things stand out: the demonstrations in Moscow on the eve of and on Inauguration Day and the remarkable tardiness in the shaping of the "Medvedev cabinet." The May 6 clashes with the police in the streets of Moscow added more bad press to Putin's mountain of criticism in the Western media. Were he to show up at the White House, he would run the risk of being asked uncomfortable questions at a Rose Garden news conference. Putin's irritation with the U.S. government's support for Russian NGOs active in election monitoring is well known, as is his criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department. The no-show at the media-heavy ritual of the G-8 summit, most of whose leaders congratulated Putin on his reelection only grudgingly or skipped congratulations altogether, thus appears to be a retaliatory strike.
It probably was not. Putin is anything but media-shy. In your face is what he likes. The May 6 Moscow "march of millions" attracted fewer people, despite the fine weather, than the massive February event a month before the presidential election, held in bitter cold. The march had no effect on Putin's inauguration and was overshadowed on the world scene by the French and Greek elections that same weekend. Western criticisms notwithstanding, Putin feels a winner -- and he certainly looked that way on election night. If anything, he likely would enjoy the spectacle of coming back to claim his place among the world's most powerful leaders, in spite of all the hopes, entreaties, and admonitions that he would not. Doing that in the United States, in particular, would have been a personal triumph and humiliation of his foreign foes.