20 years under Putin: a timeline

The G-8 summit held at Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland resulted in a compromise on the Syrian issue. This happened despite the fact that Moscow was initially unwilling to compromise on key issues of the Syrian crisis. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya talks about why Putin showed unexpected flexibility.


Left to right: Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, Barack Obama.


The beginning of the summit was rather gloomy. Moscow suffers from the Western media's increasing criticism. The world's distrust, fear and alienation with regard to Russia continue to grow. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov criticized Putin's policy shortly before the summit. On June 11, he spoke before the US Congress at a forum entitled "Seven Democrats and Putin: Human Rights in Russia Ahead of the G8 Summit," an event co-hosted by the Institute of Modern Russia and the Foreign Policy Initiative. “Putin is a modern combination of Stalin and Abramovich. He will never go for mass repressions. After all, the 21st century is much softer than the 20th century because of globalization and mass access to information,” Nemtsov noted. “Stalin was a murderer, but he was not corrupt. Putin and his circle are deeply corrupt, and they care about their assets in Europe. And this is a chance for European democracies, because even though Putin might act as if he has unlimited power and unlimited opportunities, that is not true. He only wishes he had that,” Nemtsov said, explaining why it was necessary to rename the G8 to the “G7 plus Putin." Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper soon expressed the same idea: he admitted that it was more accurate to call the summit “G-7+1.” "I don’t think we should fool ourselves," Harper said.

Despite the summit's packed agenda, everything turned upon Syria: there is a deep rift between the Russian position and the G-7 leaders' position on this issue. Vladimir Putin's meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron was gloomy as well: Western media called the talks "icy." The Putin-Cameron press conference that followed said their not very successful meeting could be called "bloody"; while the British prime minister accused those who supported Bashar al-Assad of killing Syrian children, Putin responded by telling horror stories about organ-eating Syrian rebels. It appeared that the parties were so sick and tired of the communication gap that they resorted to scaring the audience. This is not a new experience for Putin. For instance, on repeated occasions he has talked about the "blood on the hands" of those involved in the Yukos case. There is no court ruling on this (there is not even a court that would convict an oil company's owner of stealing the oil his company produced from himself), but it certainly sounds like a thriller.

The "Lukashization" of Russia has one fundamental difference from Belarus: Putin's Russia needs full status in the club of developed nations.

It seemed that the G-8 summit was on the brink of failure. A Reuters source in the British government declared that Cameron was insisting on the G-8 adopting a five-point declaration on Syria. The first point consisted of supplying Syria with humanitarian aid; the second one concerned the fight against Islamic extremists in this country; the third one condemned the use of chemical weapons; the fourth point implied the development of a stabilization strategy in Syria; and the final, fifth point concerned the creation of a provisional government in the country. Had Russia not supported the points prepared by London, the declaration would have been adopted without its participation.

However, against expectation, Vladimir Putin not only toned down his rhetoric, but even made some concessions, having found the ability to compromise on key points. This move raised questions regarding some of the Russian leader's motives.

First of all, Putin's ambitions go far beyond the Russian borders. The "Lukashization" (the evolution toward a Belarus-style dictatorship) of Russia has one fundamental difference from Belarus: Putin's Russia will fight to the end for full status in the club of developed nations. Unlike Alexander Lukashenko, Putin cannot picture Russia without the ability to discuss world problems with the leaders of the most influential countries. Putin has the ambitions to be a leader of the "world government," which establishes the functioning principles of the world's politics and international relations, as well as the development of global conflicts. That is why the marginalization of his global position is in direct opposition to what the Russian leader aspires to. He wants to possess real authority, both in Russia and abroad.

Secondly, despite the fact that the process of nationalizing the Russian elites has begun, too many assets, business connections and aspirations of Putin's elite are linked to the West. For example, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin is known as the ideologist of security services, one of the hawks of Russian foreign policy, and a supporter of tough measures against the opposition. He fights for the attention and interest of Western investors and insists on building not just a Russian oil giant but a world oil empire, which will range among Western transnational corporations.  Putin's elite do not need isolationism, which would not only destroy the Russian economy, but would also annihilate the functioning principle of Putin's oligarchy. One curious detail is worth mentioning: the editor-in-chief of the propaganda TV channel Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, decided to give birth to her baby in the US, which guarantees that the baby will obtain American citizenship. This seemingly individual case holds the essence of Putin's elite, which consists of labeling the West an enemy while secretly "betrothing" itself to it.


The attitude to Bashar al-Assad (left) separates Vladimir Putin from the rest of the G-8 leaders.


Thirdly, Russia will host a G-20 summit in September. A failure at the G-8 meeting would represent a very bad start to Russia's G-20 presidency. The summit in Northern Ireland gave Russia an opportunity to introduce the G-20 agenda. The fact that Putin finds it much easier to work in the G-20 format, that besides the Western "giants" includes developing countries that often get into arguments with the US and the EU, speaks for itself. According to Putin, the main idea is to coordinate these two forums. In his view, the G-8 and the G-20 should not be divided along political and economic lines. It is through the G-20 that Russia is trying to push its ideas on reforming the world's monetary and financial system, most of which are directed against the dominance of the United States and the US Dollar. There are also proposals for rebalancing the system of quota distribution and voting shares in the International Monetary Fund and for increasing the role of developing countries, which has not yet found widespread support.  Putin is trying to send a signal to the global community: Russia is not worse but even better than the European Union. Putin's interview ahead of the G-8 summit, in which he declared among other things that European countries were facing the structural distortions and consequences of living beyond their means and losing control of the economic situation, caused a great resonance. “Many European countries are witnessing a rise of [the] dependency mentality, when not working is often much more beneficial than working," he noted. "This type of mentality endangers not only the economy but also the moral basics of the society. It is not a secret that many citizens of less developed countries come to Europe intentionally to live off welfare, like they call it in Germany. For Russia, such an approach is unacceptable." “We made our choice long ago. We will not renounce our social obligations,” Putin said firmly. However, he also believes that it is too early to bury the European social model.

Such an arrogant claim with regard to Europe is an example of an inner irrepressible desire to be superior to the West, to have the privilege to direct and teach, and become exactly like the US as Russia sees it. Indeed, in this case the Russian president does not need isolation. That is why he could not refuse to compromise on Syria, because this would legitimize what Nemtsov and Harper had said about the G-7+1 and would mark the beginning of the end of the G-8. This would have been Putin's first foreign policy failure.

Moscow's main demand was that the G-8 declaration not mention Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's resignation. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the G-8 statement mentioning Assad's fate would upset the balance necessary to settle the Syrian crisis. In return, Moscow made considerable concessions on two problems. First, the Western accusations that Assad's regime has used chemical weapons. In Moscow's view, these allegations have no proof. The final G-8 statement says that the UN mission has to submit a report on the use of chemical weapons to the UN Security Council, which will then see that those who are found responsible are held accountable. Ryabkov, however, noted that the communiqué should not be considered a guideline to follow with regard to this issue. This could mean that Moscow reserves the right not to agree with the conclusions drawn by the UN mission.

Putin could not refuse to compromise on Syria, because this would legitimize what Nemtsov and Harper had said about the G-7+1.

Secondly, concessions were made on the question of forming a transitional government, which the Kremlin sees as an illegitimate attempt at removing Assad's regime. The communiqué says that a "transitional governing body with full executive powers" will be formed. In Russia's view, the fact that it will have "full executive powers" means that the current Syrian government's interests should be taken into consideration as well.

However, the parties still have fundamental disagreements on the Syrian issue. The adopted document is more of a way to conceal the lack of compromise on key questions such as the fate of Assad's regime, arms procurement for both parties, cooperation with the opposition forces, and mechanisms of legitimizing them. To avoid a quarrel, the leaders of the G-8 used about-speech, and demonstrated that relative unanimity of opinion among the dominant countries is more important than differences on the Syrian problem.

Despite the summit's positive results, Vladimir Putin finds it increasingly difficult to look like a "good guy" among his counterparts from the G-8. The hostility in Western media and the tough tone of Western leaders' statements with regard to the Kremlin's foreign and domestic policies are growing. Despite Putin's claim that he "did not feel lonely," the gap between him and the Western leaders was one of the strongly pronounced characteristics of the latest summit. The more Putin tries to prove to the West that he is an equal partner, the further he gets from the West and the more he aggravates the situation with domestic paranoia. Soon enough, the Russian president will face a choice: either "Lukashization" or geopolitical ambitions. For the time being the situation has developed in favor of the former.