In a phone conversation with the summit host, U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin attributed this decision to the need to finalize cabinet appointments in the new Russian government. Had such an explanation come, say, from François Hollande, it would have sounded reasonable: until last Sunday, Hollande didn’t even know whether or not he would become president of France. In contrast, Putin had at least two months to deal with personnel issues before the G8 meeting.
While the real reason(s) for Putin’s decision are known only to him, some guesses could be made. First, Putin didn’t want his first foreign trip as president to bring him in the United States, the country he often criticizes for meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs; one would rather expect Putin traveling to Astana or Beijing. Second, Putin naturally tries to avoid the intense media attention that his appearance at the summit would have elicited – with inevitable questions from the press about protest actions accompanying the May 7 inauguration. Third, Putin sends a clear message that Russia doesn’t value its G8 membership as much as it did in the past; these days, it favors the G20 format. Fourth, planning for his long-anticipated meeting with Obama, Putin wants to deprive his American counterpart of the home advantage; Putin will feel more comfortable playing on a neutral field in Mexico during the mid-June G20 summit. Finally, Putin makes it obvious that he’s not going to invest much effort into relationship with Obama until the latter is re-elected in November.
At Camp David, Russia will be represented by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, confirming a prediction made by the Forbes magazine that under Putin, Medvedev will play an active role in foreign affairs, including attending high-profile international events. Yet, Medvedev’s very first mission of honor has been already spoiled by the way Putin introduced it. For the past few weeks, Medvedev has been actively working on the formation of the future Cabinet. Now, it appears that it’s Putin not Medvedev who has the final word on the structure and composition of Medvedev’s government. Medvedev’s interlocutors at the summit will have a reason to treat him as a child who was sent to play in the courtyard while daddy is checking his homework. Hopefully, in the future, Putin won’t abuse Medvedev’s willingness to serve as a messenger (remember: “I will pass this information to Vladimir?”). Doing so will leave Russia underrepresented at the world forums, which may eventually hurt its national interests.
Today, Obama responded in kind by refusing to attend the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sep. 1-8. This news is likely to bring some relief to my relatives in Vladivostok who can’t wait until this whole APEC madness is over and they can reclaim their normal lives.