Russia shrugs as G-8 shuts it out

Though the G-8 will meet sans Russia in Brussels instead of Sochi, experts say the Kremlin had already been moving away from the group.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
People pass an entrance to a restaurant with a notice reading 'Sanction: US President Barack Obama is not allowed to visit the Dolma Restaurant!' in Moscow on Monday.

Moscow appears to be shrugging off Western leaders' resolve to reduce the Group of Eight leading countries by one, suspending Russia from the prestigious club over its annexation of Crimea and continuing threats against Ukraine.

"We're not attached to this format, and we see no big misfortune if [the G-8] doesn't meet," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday. "Let it be an experiment for a year or two, to see how we live without it."

For now, President Vladimir Putin probably doesn't need to worry about losing face with his own people over the expulsion. Polls show that his job approval rating has soared by more than 10 points in recent weeks to a three-year high of 76 percent, due in part to the successful Sochi Winter Games but mostly to his forceful handling – from the point of view of average Russians – of the Ukraine crisis.

But once upon a time the Kremlin lobbied hard to gain admittance to the world's most prestigious group. Membership was taken as a sign of Russia's return from post-Soviet oblivion when then-President Boris Yeltsin was invited in 1998 to join Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US at the table as a full participant.

Russia was handed the group's rotating presidency at the beginning of this year, and its annual summit was supposed to have taken place in Sochi. All that is off now, and the trimmed-down G-7 will gather in Brussels instead.

Perhaps prophetically, Vladimir Putin's address upon assuming the role stressed that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable place.

"However, crisis response tools are not always effective," he said.

Some experts say that Russia has been seen as an outlier in the group since it joined. In recent years, it has been increasingly at odds with its Western partners on most key foreign policy issues of the day, including Syria, Iran, and now Ukraine.

At last year's summit in Northern Ireland, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the sense of division explicit, saying "I don't think we should fool ourselves, this is G-7 plus one."

The break has been in the making for a long time, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

"It became clear over time that Russia had a different stance, and instead of becoming a forum for dialogue, the G-8 was mainly theater" that projected a false impression of unity, Mr. Lukyanov says.

"There are other places now, such as the G-20, and Russia's role as the only non-Western power in the conversation is no longer so important. So, bottom line, we don't really care" about losing the G-8 seat, he adds.

Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the upper house of parliament's international affairs committee, says it's a pity Russia is being kicked out at a time when the need for dialog seems greater than ever.

"These seven countries have decided instead to make a demonstration of punishing Russia, like a small child who's been disobedient. It looks pretty strange to behave that way when the world's problems are more acute than ever," Mr. Klimov says. "But they wanted a scapegoat, and Russia is it."

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