With G8 snub, US-Putin 'reset' off to stumbling start

'President Putin expressed his regret that he would be unable to attend the G8 Summit at Camp David on May 18-19,' the White House announced this week.

Ria Novosti/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a visit to Russian machine building company Uralvagonzavod in Nizhny Tagil on Thursday, May 10. The White House announced this week, 'President Putin expressed his regret that he would be unable to attend the G8 Summit at Camp David' next week.

And then there were seven?

The leaders of the G8 developed countries are set to descend upon Camp David in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park next week, hosted by President Obama. But as it turns out, the group will have to do without Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has declared himself too busy to attend.

“Noting his responsibilities to finalize cabinet appointments in the new Russian government, President Putin expressed his regret that he would be unable to attend the G8 Summit at Camp David on May 18-19,” the White House announced this week, as part of a readout of Mr. Obama’s first telephone conversation with Putin since he returned to the Russian presidency on Monday.

The statement added that Obama “expressed his understanding of President Putin’s decision” and that he would welcome former President Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, in Putin’s seat at the Group of Eight table. Perhaps wishing to avoid the thought that the two leaders were anything but amicable, it went on to say that Obama and Putin used Thursday’s phone call to commemorate “the occasion of Russia’s celebration of Victory in Europe day.”

Never mind that France’s President-elect François Hollande, who won a runoff vote on Sunday and won’t take over the Élysée presidential palace until May 15, plans to attend both the G8 and the subsequent NATO summit in Chicago May 20-21.

It was what the White House statement didn’t say that stuck out like a sore thumb.

The White House has been trying to decide how it would work with Putin ever since he began campaigning for a return to the presidency with a tone that was much more nationalist and confrontational than the cooperative approach of Mr. Medvedev. It was Medvedev as president, working with Obama on nuclear arms reductions and even prickly issues like missile defense, who had made it possible for the Obama administration to declare the famous “reset” of US-Russia relations.

Putin’s campaign rhetoric and the tactics of some of his supporters – along with complaints from his Russian detractors that at best, Putin favors a form of “managed democracy” – caused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to express alarm about Russia. That, in turn, caused Putin to accuse Secretary Clinton of trying to sow the seeds of revolt in Russia.

When Putin won the March elections, there was no hurry at the White House to congratulate him – only, eventually, a statement saying that Obama looked forward to working with him. In Moscow, some pro-Putin media saw the influence of an America that seeks to spread “color revolutions” in the protests that marred Putin’s inauguration this week.

The White House did note that Obama and Putin will meet next month – at a high-level United Nations conference in Mexico on climate. As in climate change. But the two leaders will also have their working environment to address.

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