Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, has recognized that he does not belong at the G-8 summit. The G-7 should take him at his word. U.S. President Barack Obama needs to face up to two closely related issues: how to treat Russia, and, specifically, how to treat Putin, now that he has returned to office. Obama needs to rethink his "reset," as conditions have changed.
Over the last four years, President Dmitry Medvedev improved Russia's relations with virtually everybody, while Prime Minister Putin ruled at home. Medvedev concluded the New START agreement, shepherded Russia into the World Trade Organization, opened the Northern Distribution Network for supplies to Afghanistan, and made substantial progress on missile defense.
But now Putin is back. A few hours after his May 7 inauguration, he decreed that a Eurasian Union of Belarus and Kazakhstan would be his top foreign-policy priority -- a sign of insecurity and isolation. While Medvedev accepted international action in Libya, Putin defends his old repressive friends in Syria, declaring that Russia will "counter attempts to use human rights concepts as an instrument of political pressure and interference in the internal affairs of states."
Two days later, Putin declared that he would not attend the May 18-19 G-8 summit at Camp David, sending Medvedev instead. Putin's excuse -- "his responsibilities to finalize Cabinet appointments in the new Russian government," according to a White House readout of Obama's phone call with Putin -- is implausible. Why would he send the head of that government abroad?
Putin's record is all too evident. He has systematically transformed Russia from a semi-democracy to an authoritarian state. Tales of his gross personal corruption are abundant. In diplomacy, you have to deal with all kinds of people, but that doesn't mean the West should invite Putin to every forum.
Ironically, Obama moved the G-8 summit from Chicago to Camp David in order not to embarrass Putin, as it would have preceded the May 20-21 NATO summit, also in Chicago. After all, the last time Putin went to a NATO summit -- in Bucharest in April 2008 -- he all but declared war on Georgia. President George W. Bush failed to protest against this provocation and even visited Putin at his summer residence in Sochi immediately afterward. Interpreting Bush's actions as clear approval, Putin followed up with a real war in August 2008. Obviously, he should not be welcomed to another NATO summit, and the NATO-Russia Council may rest in peace.
But the same is true of the G-8. The G-7, when it was set up in the mid-1970s, was supposed to be the club of the seven biggest industrial democracies in the world. Because of the democratic endeavors of Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the G-7 welcomed Russia in 1997. But because Russia is no longer a democracy by any stretch of the word, the basis for Russia's membership in the G-8 has evaporated.
Putin used to have three great friends among the G-8 leaders, namely Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and French President Jacques Chirac. All are gone and duly discredited. Berlusconi is facing multiple legal cases. In December 2011, Chirac was convicted of embezzling public funds and given a two-year suspended prison sentence. The Russian state gas giant Gazprom hired Schröder to oversee the construction of a major gas pipeline, Nord Stream, from Russia to Germany immediately after he left office. He had approved it days earlier in one of his last decisions as chancellor in an apparent conflict of interest. Fortunately, none of the current G-7 leaders has any such known record of moral depravation.
Obama needs to stand up to the Putin presidency. To begin with, he must re-establish elementary respect. He allows Putin's thugs to harass his ambassador in Moscow in stark violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. He should simply inform Putin that he will not see him until the abuse of Michael McFaul has stopped. Putin understands such language.
After being snubbed by Putin, the White House stated: "President Obama expressed his understanding of President Putin's decision and welcomed the participation of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev at the G8 Summit." Moreover, they "agreed to hold a bilateral meeting on the margins of the June 18-19, G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico." Putin will never respect Obama if the U.S. president permits himself to be humiliated like that. This is diplomacy at its most elementary. Obama should have suggested instead that he understood Putin's disinterest because Russia is no longer a democracy and the G-7 no longer has any reason to invite Russia to this democratic club.
International economic organizations are quite another matter. There, Russia should be most welcome. The G-20 is a purely economic club without democratic ambitions, as it includes countries that are far more authoritarian than Russia, such as China and Saudi Arabia.
The United States has rightly welcomed Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO). But American companies will only be able to benefit from the substantial gains that the WTO can give them if the U.S. Congress grants Russia permanent normal trade relations. Otherwise, WTO rules will not apply to trade between the United States and Russia, and U.S. companies will suffer from higher import tariffs and stricter import rules.
Benefiting from trade with Russia is in America's interests. But it's also very much in U.S. interests to put Russia's leader in his place. In fact, Obama may undermine both congressional support for expanded trade relations with Moscow and sound U.S.-Russia relations through his strange, harmful subservience to Putin.