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For several weeks now it’s been clear that Putin won’t attend this month’s NATO summit in Chicago. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently spoke with Russia’s new/old president and explained that it’s “not possible and not practical” for Putin to participate because of his “busy domestic calendar.” But the real reason is missile defense. Moscow is furious that the U.S. has rejected its proposal for a “sectoral” arrangement that would further downgrade the system’s capabilities and give Russia the responsibility to protect NATO countries from certain ballistic-missile threats.
This has triggered what I call the Kremlin’s Rodney Dangerfield syndrome. It demands “respect” and proceeds to show its displeasure when Russia’s supposed interests aren’t being acknowledged. In that context, Putin’s decision to skip the NATO summit isn’t entirely unexpected and shouldn’t be overanalyzed.
However, a few days ago, Putin announced that he also wouldn’t attend the G-8 summit at Camp David, which was moved from Chicago specifically to accommodate his likely absence at the NATO summit and to avoid the awkwardness of attending one but not the other.
Putin explained to Obama that he would miss the summit because he needs to assemble a new government in Moscow, which, of course, is the responsibility of the prime minister rather than the president. (Although in fairness, after four years as both Russia’s prime minister and de facto president, Putin can be forgiven for his confusion.) In typically Kremlinesque fashion, it was a blatantly obvious cop-out with a not-too-subtle message. Camp David was supposed to provide the venue for Obama’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin since his return to the presidency.
This was much more than a simple snub. It’s possible that Putin anticipated and wanted to avoid criticism from his G-8 counterparts about the Kremlin’s violent suppression of opposition protests before and after his May 7 inauguration. I’d prefer this to be a one-time judgment that stems from recent events. But I worry that Putin’s decision is indicative of his growing detachment from reality after 12 years at Russia’s helm.
Putin is apparently “sick of diplomatic routines and protocols” and “prefers meetings with business leaders, who have concrete goals, rather than with politicians.” If that means he’ll finally begin to address Russia’s sub-Saharan levels of corruption, virtually nonexistent rule of law, and other conditions that stymie the country’s economic and political development, then that’s great. But I doubt this very much.
Rather, I see Putin’s decision to skip the G-8 summit as the beginning of his self-isolation. The more repressive he becomes at home, the more uncomfortable he’ll be in settings — like NATO and the G-8 — that are dominated by democracies. And the less he interacts with the West, the less restrained he’ll feel from pursuing repressive policies at home. With Putin back in the Kremlin, Russia may soon find itself in the midst of this vicious cycle. It’s always difficult to make predictions about how authoritarian states will behave, but it looks like Russia’s relations with the West are about to enter extremely rough waters.
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